Donald J. Patti

From Chaos to Crisis to Calm – 9 Tips to Recover Troubled Projects

In Business, Entrepreneurship, leadership, management, project management, Small Business on 8 February 2010 at 9:00 am

Dan Moore, a fellow Principal at Cedar Point Consulting, recently reminded me that, “You can’t manage chaos, but you can manage a crisis.” These are very wise words, but they reminded me of the early stages of a trouble project — one which is far behind schedule, well over budget, not delivering results, or all of the above.  If anything, a troubled project is chaos waiting for a strong leader to transition it to crisis, and then ultimately to calm.

Whether you’re a C-level executive, an entrepreneur or a project manager, you may not have encountered very many troubled projects in your career, so you may not be familiar with how to transition from chaos, to crisis, and finally to calm. We consultants are often brought in to deal with just such problems, so I have a few tips that should help:

  1. Don’t Panic! Douglas Adams references aside, you may have just learned that a key project is in trouble, but it’s important that you not panic. First of all, panic spreads, so you create chaos from crisis, and it won’t be long before your co-workers and your subordinates are panicked, too.Second, panicked people don’t reason effectively – they make “fight-or-flight” decisions instead of rational ones, so you’re far more likely to make a bad decision or push others to do so.
  2. Be Methodical. At Cedar Point Consulting, we have a 5-step process that we follow to recover projects – Review, Recommend, Respond, Transition, Close. While this is not the only way to recover a project, it does consistently work – by step three, the project is making progress once again. Regardless of the technique or methodology that you choose, don’t attempt to solve the project’s problems until you have an understanding of their causes. Do take measures to stop the bleeding, until you’ve effectively identified root causes.
  3. Read the Tea Leaves. Whether well run or not, nearly all projects have documents that tell you where the weaknesses are and whether they are being managed well. At minimum, even the smallest project should follow a standardized process ( project methodology); a charter (with a project goal); a project plan that includes a schedule, a budget, and assigned staff; regular meeting minutes and regular status reports. If these exist, review them to assess where problems are occurring. If they don’t, find out why.
  4. Be From Missouri (“Show Me”). Reading current project documents is a good start, but what if someone is fudging the numbers or painting a rosier picture than reality? For select documents, like staff hours, project schedule and project budget, confirm that they are reasonably accurate independently. Which brings us to the next tip…
  5. Use an Independent Third Party. Whether you hire a consultant or have someone in another part of your business lead your project recovery effort, they should be an independent third party. Having a friend of the Project Manager, the Project Manager’s immediate superior or one of their subordinates jump in to help is unlikely to be successful.
  6. Change Leadership or Change Process. At the most basic level, projects most often fail because either the project manager is not up to the task or the project management process is preventing them from succeeding. A good project manager controls time, scope, cost and quality on a project. If they don’t control at least two of these and influence all four, then they are likely to fail. Conversely, if they control all of these but the projects headed off a cliff, you probably need to switch project leadership.
  7. Increase Communication. When you’re trying to identify problems with a project, it helps to increase communication within the team. Schedule and require participation in regular meetings – daily, if necessary, like Stand-ups or Daily Scrums. Finally, increase the frequency of status reports to key parties, such as the client, the sponsor and key stakeholders, even if the reporting is informal.
  8. To Thine Own Self be True. There’s always a need for optimism in every situation, but good leaders are also honest to themselves and to others about the current state of a project. Depending upon how far behind the project truly is, consider reducing scope or resetting the schedule. Failing to do so may doom the project and the project team to yet another failure – one from which they may not recover.
  9. Start Small, Review Frequently.  After you’ve planned your recovery, be sure to start with small deliverables and shorter milestones, reviewing the project’s progress frequently to make sure the conservative short term goals are being met. While this is not normally the best approach with a project, starting small enables the team members to practice working together as a team before they have to tackle the larger, more challenging deliverables of the project.

The list above isn’t a comprehensive recipe for solving all the problems of a troubled project or for complete recovery, but it is a good start.  In a subsequent post, I’ll provide a list of ways to minimize the possibility of troubled projects altogether.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at

New Decade, New Venture

In Entrepreneurship, management, Small Business on 31 January 2010 at 3:02 pm

There’s an old saying that the happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy the boat and they day they sell it. Never having owned a boat larger than a canoe, I’ve always chuckled when I’ve heard this truism, particularly as I watched my nautical neighbors in Annapolis clean, paint and other-wise maintain their boats.

One would think the same truism would apply to running a business, particularly when building a business from the ground up. As many entrepreneurs and small business owners know, it’s not uncommon to work 60 or more hours a week when starting a business; customers and clients will come calling at all hours of the day and night; and, sometimes you have to stretch more value out of a few bucks than a third-world soup kitchen. Even when the business is stable, vacations are never truly vacations – there’s nearly always a crisis that requires your input, which prevents even three-day weekends from being work-free.

So it may surprise some of my friends and business associates that, after running a business for a little over five years in the first decade of the 21st century, followed by roughly five years working for others, I’ve decided to start another business again in 2010. There are a few reasons I’ve decided to do this, but here are the most significant:

  • Running a business enables me to pursue my passions. As with any consulting business, your client is your first priority. However, after all of the client’s work is done, there is still time to improve your own business, to research new innovations in your industry, and to help your co-workers to learn and grow, too. Along the way, if you identify a new market or business opportunity, it’s yours to pursue – no approvals necessary.
  • Running a business enables me to consult in multiple areas, preventing me from being typecast as solely a “strategist”, a “technology expert” or a “project management guru”. If you are both a voracious reader and an experienced practitioner, it’s amazing how effective you can be in many disciplines, not to mention the synergistic benefits of being knowledgeable in many areas. As an entrepreneur, you aren’t bound by the practice area or job title that someone else gave you – you are bound by the knowledge and experience that you truly hold.
  • Running a business enables me to live according to my own values. A number of years ago, a former PR Manager for an energy company told me why he’d moved out of PR and in to HR by saying, “There was an incident at one of our plants where an employee of our company had made a mistake. I was head of Public Relations, so I wanted to say to the public, ‘We screwed up, we’re sorry, but here’s what we’re doing to make sure it won’t happen again.’ Instead, I was told to deny that the incident ever took place, which was a flat out lie. I did what was asked, but I couldn’t bear the thought of the next time an incident occurred and I’d have to cover for our mistake.”
    While few events in business pose moral challenges as great as what he faced, there are day-to-day decisions that may help your business but harm your soul. As a business owner and a Christian, I can say how nice it is to be able to do the right thing should the need arise, yet not have to worry about whether I’ll land in the unemployment line.
  • Running a business adds weight to my advice. It’s one thing to say something because you’ve seen it work for others, and an entirely different thing to speak from firsthand experience. As a consultant, so much advice is based on observation, but as a business owner, you not only speak your advice you live it and breathe it. Your clients know this, so they respect your advice even more.
  • Running a business enables me to balance work, family and charity. There are many myths about running a small business versus working for someone else that I’ve uncovered during the past ten years, but the most important factor is this: Never was I more able to meet my clients needs, to arrange my schedule around family activities, and to put in time to perform charitable work than when I ran my own business.

I can safely say that I have met many wonderful people while working for other businesses, I have served a number of clients that were well worth the time and effort expended, and I have worked with some very talented leadership along the way. In addition, I have served more than a few Fortune 500 companies and managed more than a few multi-million dollar endeavors in the process.

However, I’m looking forward to living the life of a small business owner once again. I know it’s considered by many to be one of the hardest jobs to hold. But it’s also a very fulfilling life, one that holds the most promise for me to positively impact others – and it’s nothing, apparently, like owning a boat.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in strategy, process improvement and project management.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at

Failed Pilot? Chalk it up as a Win!

In Business, E-Business, management, project management, Software Development, Technology on 14 December 2009 at 8:30 am

You’ve just had a failed pilot, followed by a quick meeting with the Project Management Office (PMO).  Your project was killed and you feel like a failure.

What should you do next?  “Celebrate,” I say, “then chalk it up as a win.”

What? Not the answer you were expecting?  Let me explain…

I spend quite a bit of time in a classroom, whether its to teach a subject or to learn myself.  During one class, the oft-cited Standish Group statistic that measures projects successes reared its ugly head once again, this time citing a roughly 30% project success rate with roughly 45% qualifying as challenged (Standish Group 2009).  Per Standish, roughly 70% of projects fail to meet expectations – a sobering statistic.

A project manager sitting behind me who specialized in pharmaceuticals shocked me when she said, “Gee, I wish our numbers were that good [in our industry].  The odds of a clinical trial resulting in the drug reaching market is 1 in 20, and this is after its cleared a number of internal hurdles to justify a stage I/II trial.”  (A stage I/II trial is early in the process and serves as a pilot).  While I laughed at her comment, I also considered how it related to the Standish statistics and definitions of project success.

By her definition, success meant bringing her product all the way to market, an unlikely outcome by her own estimation and by those of my fellow health sciences colleagues.  But, what if success was defined as, “Accurately determining whether a product should be brought to market,” or “Successfully determining whether a project should continue past the pilot stage”?  Suddenly, many of her projects would be considered successes.  After all, how many drugs don’t work, have ugly side effects, or have the potential to kill their patients?  Isn’t she and her team successful if they keep bad drugs off the market and aren’t we better off for it?

In the software industry, good software methodologies use pilots, proof-of-concepts or prototypes to determine whether a software product is worth fully developing and fully budgeting.  In the Rational Unified Process, the rough equivalent of a pilot is called the Lifecycle Architecture Milestone and its purpose is to confirm that the greatest technical and design hurdles can be overcome before additional funding is provided to the project.  In Rapid Application Development prototyping is embedded in each and every iteration (cycle), while paper prototyping is a part of Agile development.  Regardless of the methodology, these steps are designed to provide results early, but they are also designed to confirm that a project is worth completing, providing an opportunity to change course or shut down the effort when it’s not.

So, maybe it’s time for those of us in the PMO and portfolio management to change they way we measure project success.  Right along side the “projects successfully completed on time/on budget” statistic, there should be two others — “projects successfully killed because their pilots proved they simple weren’t viable,” and “dollars saved by ending unfeasible projects early.”  Because in the end, a pilot’s failure is just as good as a pilot’s success, as long as you listen to its message.