How to Take Over a Failing Project

How to Take Over a Failing Project


Continuing to develop a failing project is a BIG challenge for any PM taking over. Initial questions include what the root causes are, how many previous PMs have worked on this, how many times has the plan been rebaselined, can we reduce scope, and if the project is still relevant to the company’s strategy. The objective here is to discuss the techniques that would be useful in turning failure into success. Keep reading to learn how to take over a failing project.


To determine the status, meet the person (e.g., executive management or PMO director) who assigned you this failing project to get an update on what is going on, and what are the expectations. Then review the project’s charter and original scope. Next, you should interview the previous PM (if still around), the project sponsor, key stakeholders, contractors, and project team members to search for the reasons behind the project’s failure. Do not be too quick to judge and always welcome constructive criticism.

In addition, you should review all project documents like correspondence, management reports, and contracts to help you understand why the client wants to continue the project. There are dozens of reasons why a project can fail, such as poor design, poor planning, not using the right resources, not executing well, and over-complexity. I know that no single reason could trigger a project failure and there must be multiple causes why this is happening.

Team Meeting

Build a “War Room” if possible, which would be a central workplace for your project turnaround team so you can work more effectively. Relaunch your new project with a team meeting (like a project kick-off) to set the project back in motion. Acknowledge the mistakes of the past and the realities of the team’s situation. Evaluate what went wrong (root cause analysis) and the lessons learned so you do not repeat them.

After having a thorough risk review, develop a new recovery plan starting from the old project plan which will include new tasks, milestones, and finish date. If you want to shorten the duration of the project, see if any of the tasks on the critical path can be “crashed” or shortened to get a new finish date. The best process for taking over a failing project is the bottom-up approach from a small task level which helps improve team collaboration, and then do a top-down orientation of strategic management. This overall quality control process helps to streamline tasks and achieve your scheduling goals quickly. When completed, baseline your project, which will help you to monitor performance, spot potential problems, and easily identify areas for change.

Build Relationships

Work hard on improving morale so you can get the project back on track and negotiate and resolve any conflicts. Create small wins to gain trust which in turn helps you to rebuild morale and confidence. Also, continue to build relationships with your stakeholders which shows leadership. Monitor the situation regularly and stay vigilant!


Remember, you can always turn mistakes into learning opportunities by asking better questions, looking for more options, and considering all the aspects of a failing project. If you get a reputation for successfully saving failing projects, it will advance your career. Your thoughts in the comment section below are welcomed.

Related Content

Projects are a People Thing: What if Success or Failure is not Based on Technology?

Back to Basics: Why do Projects Fail?

What Not to Do When Managing a Project Recovery

Next Webinar

Resource and Task Management in Microsoft Project

Written by Ronald Smith
Ronald Smith has over four decades of experience as Senior PM/Program Manager. He retired from IBM having written four books and over four dozen articles (for example, PMI’s PM Network magazine and MPUG) on project management, and the systems development life cycle (SDLC). He’s been a member of PMI since 1998 and evaluates articles submitted to PMI’s Knowledge Shelf Library for potential publication. From 2011 - 2017, Ronald had been an Adjunct Professor for a Master of Science in Technology and taught PM courses at the University of Houston’s College of Technology. Teaching from his own book, Project Management Tools and Techniques – A Practical Guide, Ronald offers a perspective on project management that reflects his many years of experience. Lastly in the Houston area, he has started up two Toastmasters clubs and does voluntary work at various food banks.
Share This Post

Leave a Reply