Project Rescue–the Why, the How and the What

You have all been on a project that did not really go according to plan. Chances are, the more you’ve been in an industry, the more of these projects you’ve encountered. Probably, at the beginning of your career, it was maybe just a feeling that something’s not right. As you advanced in your career, you started to recognize the signs better, to realize when things are off-track, or you’ve been part of the process to resolve these issues and have a direct input in rescuing projects.

Project failures are normal, and you will find them not only in IT engagements, but in domain that structures a work load as a projects. Let’s just make a generic statement and say that:

Project DO FAIL!

Statistics show that more than half of IT projects fail. This issue has been raised over the years over and over, but it seems that the overall failure rate has not really changed. This article from 2016 showed that same result. As a matter of fact, in 2019 this article shows that the overall failure rate was even higher, closer to 70%.

In fact, there are three overall measures that are at the forefront of why projects fail. They are:

  • Projects are late – TIME
  • Projects are over budget – MONEY
  • Projects do not meet the client needs – SCOPE

Often times, these three measures go hand in hand. You will find projects that are late to also be over budget, and also miss on scope.

To go more granular, other reasons for failure include things like:

  • Stakeholders revise objectives
  • Loosing key resources
  • Budgets are cut or re-allocated
  • Poor management of priorities
  • Delays in delivery of various components that tend to snowball
  • Complexity

Of course, there are a multitude of factors that contribute to the failure of the project, and each project has a certain level of individuality that brings along specific factors for failure.

I want to touch a little on complexity here. I see often a situation where the pre-work has not been done to reduce complexity. This puts additional pressure on a project, as the delivery of the project is impacted by side-initiatives meant to reduce complexity on the fly. This is a slippery slope to go on, and the risk is greatly increased.

Fact of the matter is, any project will go through crisis at any point in time. It comes down to how to deal with crisis.

You really have two choices during the lifetime of a project. Deal with unexpected at every step of the way, or let it snowball and turn into a big wave. A good Project Manager (PM) will deal with the little waves, thus avoiding the tsunami. But that might not always be possible.

You have probably seem the following image in various circumstances.


When evaluating issues, you should always start with the WHY. You always need to deal with obstacles and potential failures. Start by being prepared, and asking why these things arise at this stage. This could be an indication of things that should have, but have not been considered from the beginning. Or there could be other factors. Determine is there are patterns emerging.

Next, look at the HOW. This is a reflection stage, where you look at the what approach can be taken to deal with this issues arising.

Finally, the WHAT allows you to identify the exact actions and steps needed to course-correct. This is a subjective stage, and the more experience you have the better you will do. It’s ok to seek advice from more senior resources that have been part of this process and can provide good advice. After all, the only way to learn is by asking and figuring out how similar issues were dealt with successfully in the past.

If you handles issues all along, chances are you can avoid a general project rescue. But if you did not, and you’ve come to a point where a project rescue is the only way to push forward, then there a five stage process that allows you to do just that.

Note that, of you’ve at this stage, you might want to consider bringing in the big guns, a team specialized in handling project rescue.

The stages for a project rescue are:

Recognize the issues

At this point, chances are there is more than one issue. Things have snowballed, the relationship with the client has deteriorate, and you’re in need of a major intervention. Some of the signs include a lack of team motivation, no visible progress, feel like you’re backpedalling, there are excuses coming from all directions, there is diminished focus, the overall project status is in bloody red.

Analyze the issues

At this point you must identify the influencing factors that are causing issues, as well as determine measures to be applied. It is wise to establish a core team to handle the rescue process. Some times, this team will not include the resources actively involved on the project in order to avoid bias. A fresh new set of eyes will have a new perspective on things. Knowing your project is also essential, so existing resources will be consulted. Don’t just re-assign them all to other engagements, making it impossible to reach out to. Here you can start to identify quick wins. Quite opposite from identifying the root cause in the previous stage, focusing on quick wins will have a positive impact on the entire team, and progress will start to create a momentum, pushing the project forward.

Stabilize the project

The focus in this phase is to re-build the trust and relationship between team members and stakeholders. This probably took a big hit as the project was failing. It is important to bring all the parties back at the negotiating table, and re-start the collaboration. It might be necessary to drop some resources at this point in order to create a new cohesive team that works well together. At this point, put together a new plan of attack, define a new approach, a new scope, timeline and expected outcome. A new normal is defined here. Some of the things to keep an eye on here include:

  • The size of the new team
  • The communication
  • The relationship
  • The participation and support

You are on a tipping point here, where things should start to get better from now on.

Transform the project

At this point you are starting to work towards the new goals. Focus is on the new project outcome and the new target. Communication is essential, with a focus on the people participating on this rescue. You must constantly make course corrections and adjustments, but overall the the mood should show a new sense of achievement. Things are rolling forward, we can start to see progress, mood is improving substantially, the trust is being rebuilt. Continuously engage with the people part of this project.

Sustaining the project

This is the final stage of the project rescue. Here, you have managed to turn the project around, the spirits are up again, a sense of confidence towards the projects success has been restored. It is important to analyze the lessons learned from the initial failure, avoid the same pitfalls, retain and document the knowledge resulting from this process.

Overall, the entire process will look as such:


In closing, do not forget the most important aspect. The entire rescue is all about the people. All aspects and elements introduced in the correction revolve and rely entirely on the people’s cooperation, the lesson learned and the new structure put in place. Having the right resources in the correct places, along with the communication channels open and a cohesive team will lead to success.

Have you been part of project rescue before? What did you learn from it?


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