Organizations who experience a vacancy in a senior leadership position such as the CEO of a corporation or the Dean of a College will often decide to appoint an interim professional who takes over in a care taker capacity.  This person basically is responsible for handling the day to day activities of the job but is probably not authorized to make major decision such as changing the strategy of the organization.

I’ve often wondered if the concept of an interim project manager is needed in certain instances on projects.  Throughout my career I’ve observed many situations where the role of  project manager leading an initiative is transitioned to someone else.  Obviously there’s been a variety of reasons for these types of transitions ranging from job changes, layoffs, customer dissatisfaction, project problems, and (in very rare instances) incompetence.

Taking over as the leader of a project in mid-stream is perhaps one of the most challenging jobs that a project manager is called upon to do.  This is probably why many organizations think of this role as the “turn-around” project manager, someone with significant experience.  This person theoretically should have the knowhow and skill to “fix” the project.  In situations where the project manager is asked to step away from the project because of potential derailment, the individuals who is going to replace this PM is expected to effectively know how to “plan” and “do” at the same time.  A colleague of mine used to joke that for some of us we have to learn how to drive the car and change the flat tire at the same time.

I’ve been in both positions throughout my career where I’ve had to hand over projects or take over projects in mid-stream.  As a result of these situations I’ve learned some valuable lessons and in some instance ran into problems due to bad assumptions. Here are a couple of those lessons that I think are particularly important:

  • For the incoming PM who is taking over a project, it is very dangerous to assume that the outgoing project manager is incompetent or stupid.  If we exclude natural attrition such as retirement or even job changes and focus purely on situations where the PM is asked to step away from the project, we simply can not accept the reasons for this decision based on what we hear from one party, even if this party is the project sponsor.  Sometimes good PMs get in trouble or end up on the bad side of the customer.  So if we assume that this outgoing PM is bad we’re likely to fall into the same traps they fell into.  Incoming project managers need to spend time talking to everyone to get past the “noise” to determine the reasons for the transition of the outgoing PM and to become familiar with the project
  • For the outgoing PM who is making an exit it is important not to take the decision personally when we’re asked to step away from the project.  However we have to keep the interests of the organization we work with at heart.  This is why documentation is critical not just as we hand over but throughout the entire life-span of the project.  We have to document everything as if we might end up having to make an exit abruptly.  Believe it or not, this will actually help us if we wish to walk away from a project because we won’t run into resistance because we are “too indispensable.”

Transition is never meant to be easy but our actions, regardless of which side of that transition we might be on, can either help or hinder the process.  The best advice that I’ve learned is that as project managers we are often left “holding the bag” even if the problems on projects are not of our doing.  As a result it is best to assume that the person on the other end of that process is as competent and honest as we are, at least until there is evidence to the contrary.