The following is a guest post by Past PMI Chair Rebecca Winston, JD, PMI Fellow.

Some of the lessons I have applied I learned by acquiring a certain amount of scarring and others are from other project managers I observed or with whom I networked.  There is no magic formula or ultimate ah-ha; just some relatively simple lessons that belie the difficulty with which they are made operable.

First, I do not believe anyone is born knowing how to lead a project team to recovery and success.  I am not nor have I met the turn-around PM who ultimately knows the answer to how to turn-around a dysfunctional or unsuccessful project.  However, I have a bag of lessons learned.

Lesson Number 1 is believe in you.  Note, I did not say believe you have all the answers because you do not.  But you must believe you can do the job.  If you do not believe, then who should believe in you that will give you the appearance of confidence, a sense of direction, and purpose?

Lesson Number 2 is not to malign the previous project manager.  You face several pitfalls if you engage in maligning the previous project manager.  One never knows who on the team may be their friend and may relay your statements to the former project manager.  Some of those statements may be true, others may be your opinion, and some may not be true.  You do not know all the issues the previous project manger faced.  All you will have are your impressions and observations—both which are seen through your eyes and not their eyes at the time they were performing.

Also maligning the previous project manager in front of peers may cut you off from a valuable network.  You may need the other project managers in the organization to bounce ideas off, to question the meaning and implementation of internal procedures, to find out to remove known roadblocks, and other items.  Many of these project managers may live in fear that they may be the next to be removed if they stumble in their projects.

Oh, and do not forget that the party who is your manager may have been the previous manager’s superior.  They may even have been the hiring authority.  Maligning the previous project manager may be questioning their judgment.

Lesson Number 3 is part of the final portion of Lesson 2.  Keep your eyes on moving the project forward.  Most project managers do not have eyes in the back of their heads.  The eyes are either looking forward or they are looking back.  Looking back does not alter the project and may in fact keep one from finding the solutions and problem resolutions necessary.  It may also condemn one to relive past risks.

Certainly one must understand what has transpired and the metrics that have come before, but staying in that mode does not enable the team to move forward.  As a leader, the project team needs to follow the project manager going forward not reflecting on the past.

Lesson 4 is to believe in the team.  Do not come into the new situation–replacing members of the team with folks with which you feel comfortable.  Make sure you do your team analysis and give it some time.  Changes cause the team to question themselves and remaining members may become less productive than they were or might be.

You, as the project manager need to understand that while you feel comfortable with certain individuals, the challenge of expanding the base of talent with which one works is important.  They will bring new ideas, project insights, understanding of the risks both prior and those still to come.  Some may have relationships with sponsors, customers, suppliers, and others needed for the success of the project.

Lesson 5 is something familiar to most project managers—have a plan.  The plan should have input from the project team as with all project plans, but it should be sold as the success plan.  Communicating the positive is required.  Hammering on the lack of success or progress of the past will not coalesce the team around the spirit of success.  Both you and the team must believe that success can and will be achieved within the set of metrics for the project.

Lesson 6 is renegotiate.  You are new and have new needs, perhaps some new requirements, or new stakeholders.  Do not be afraid to exercise the renegotiation demand.  Some of it may be driven different styles, different communication needs, or an understanding of the lessons that have been learned thus far on the project.

Lesson 7 is one from project management in general, but becomes even more necessary in a turn-around project.  Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more—can one say it enough?  Various stakeholders including the team members will need to be reassured, need to have more information at least for a time, a better understanding of the risks and the handling strategies for the same, and other items that they may want to provide input.  At times one may feel that they are over communicating.  The need for the perceived over communication may reduce over time depending on how much time is left for project completion.

Lesson 8 requires the project manager to be creative.  The turn-around project manager cannot always rely on what they have done in the past.  One may have to create new reports, report in new methods, do different team building, use new communication routes, or create just to stimulate the team to be more creative and innovative.  Sometimes it can be as simple as not providing donuts for the team meeting, but supplying breakfast egg sandwiches.  The buzz created by such a simple change can lead to conversation that makes the new project manager real.  Yes, the Velveteen Rabbit Project Manager can be made real.

Lesson 9 applies to any project manager, but I found it most important when leading a turn-around project.  Stay in touch with your network.  You will need a sounding board.  There will be dark; frustrating days; days that you will feel you will be the next project manager who hits the road.  The network will listen, encourage, and perhaps offer solutions that you can use and own.

Lesson 10 again is a general project management lesson, but one that takes on a new meaning with a turn-around project.  Do not think this project will be just like the last one.  Sure some aspects may be, but many are not including the team, the risks that have been realized and their impacts, and the stakeholders just to name a few.  Declaring the project to be just like one you did recently will convey to the team a lack of uniqueness and make them question why they have been failing.  Making them question themselves more than they already were is non-productive.

There are many lessons out there and many of you have others in your PM Toolbox.  I hope some of these may be added to the Toolbox.  Just as a project manager should always be in the learning mode, the Toolbox should be in a constant growing state.


Becky Winston is an international thought leader, results-producing Management Consultant with a proven record of accomplishment in planning and leading comprehensive business strategies in support of strategic goals and objectives. Expertise includes working as a team member with engineering and scientific staff translating the technical and development paths forward. Becky has demonstrated success driving growth in targeted federal and commercial markets through relationship development and management as well as through the successful implementation of key projects and programs. She as solid leadership skills and is able to build and guide top-performing technical teams. Becky is adept at communicating with upper management, prospective and current clients, vendors, and internal departments to coordinate overall business development efforts in portfolio management through successful project management.