Taking over someone else’s project

This blog was inspired by meeting a project manager who was very excited to tell me that they had just be given the opportunity to manage a large complex project that was already well underway. I didn’t find out the reason that the previous project manager was no longer on the job but it got me thinking about the times I have taken over a project that was already underway and the lessons I’ve learned about this situation.

Taking over someone else’s project can be a real minefield with all sorts of potential problems. You need to ask yourself, and hopefully the previous project manager, why they are moving on from the project. If the previous project manager is not around to ask this then the best course of action is to take the opportunity to go right back to basics.

Take the time to find out the true state of the project. I don’t want to sound too cynical here but don’t just take the word of the departing project manager or the reports that they leave behind. You now have responsibility for this project, and this responsibility includes examining it as if it was a new project. Take the time to go examine the project selection process and the project charter. Definitely check any lessons learned database for other projects like this and even projects where a project manager left and a new one took over for the lessons they learned. Double check all the reports issued to date and check for accuracy. By doing this you can ascertain what the actual state of the project is and also by doing this level of work you also make the project more your own.

The risk is that the project has some terminal flaws and the previous project manager knew this, or was dropped because of this. In this instance you are setting yourself up to be the latest scapegoat unless you take these steps. This is the biggest risk any project manager faces when taking over an existing project. If you don’t do your homework and due diligence thoroughly you have no excuse if the project turns out to be a lemon.

Of course, the unfortunate flipside is that if a project is truly in free-fall and you have been brought in to do what you can to recover it, then you can also be seen as savior of a project, and whatever you do is an improvement. In this case you have to make sure you keep the momentum going to pull it out of the free-fall and also don’t be afraid to recommend that the project be stopped if it truly is irrecoverable.

If you are lucky enough to take over a project run by an exceptional project manager who had to move for legitimate reasons then you also take the opportunity to learn what they did that got the project to this point. Take a look at their processes, tools and techniques and learn from their successes. This is a great opportunity to professional development.

Whatever the case, if you do find yourself in the position of taking on someone else’s project, don’t assume it just a case of passing the baton and moving on. Perform your own due diligence whatever the case.