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Musings

Project Rescue

11 May 2011 by Lorraine Steyn

The software development world is sadly littered with failed projects. In 2009, the Standish Group published a study covering 40,000 software projects over a 10 year period. They discovered that 44% were “challenged” – over time, over budget or lacking critical features.

Even worse, an estimated 24% of all projects failed completely and were cancelled prior to completion; or were delivered and never used.

Obviously we would all strive to improve the process from the outset, but there is also a role for specialists who can rescue failing projects. Let us look at the steps involved in rescuing a failing project.

The prime step is acceptance. The project team and the business need to accept that their project is “broken”. Sounds simple, but this is the most difficult step. People fear failure, and will deny failing with their last breath of air, especially in a low-trust corporate environment.

If the business accepts that they have a problem, then a Project Rescue specialist such as Khanyisa Real Systems can work with the team to create a turnaround strategy.

A project rescue strategy must assess the technical environment and the skill of the people on the team, in terms of the project requirements. Usually, some re-skilling is advisable. Re-skilling helps the people involved to feel that their problems are being addressed, as well as actually increasing the abilities of the team.

It is preferable to create a turnaround strategy that leverages the team who were previously involved in the project. They have usually learnt a lot of hard lessons, and actively need the healing process of fixing their own problems. In a very small percentage of cases, if the team is completely demotivated, the rescue specialist will advise a fresh start with a new team.

A generalisation for the technical environment is that many failing projects suffer over-complex designs. A good architect must review and simplify the solution, and an enormous amount of value lies in getting this step right. Techniques exist for reviewing architecture and design decisions, but the key factor here is to find an architect who can see to the core of the problem, and re-design for simplicity without losing functionality. The great Albert Einstein said “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”!

There is a lot of value in bringing in outside consultants such as a new architect and a project rescue manager. Outside consultants are untainted by the politics of the failure, and can motivate for the critical changes required. The internal team often suffers from low trust with their management, and cannot drive the changes required, even when they also know what is required.

Outside consultants also help to combat team fatigue, often seen in teams who have thrown insane amounts of overtime at their project in a desperate attempt to turn it around.

The road to success is taken in small steps, with small victories that rebuild the confidence of the project team and their management. Khanyisa Real Systems advocates an Agile Project management approach, with small iterations, clearly defined.

The rescue goals must be defined upfront. These should be negotiated between business and the project team, and should include the minimum business requirements that must be met, balanced alongside the technical considerations. The goals should also include re-empowering the project team to continue with the project once the downward spiral has been arrested and turned around.

Finally success is not about the consultants pulling out and declaring the job complete – it is when the team take the responsibility back for their project, and the team and management both declare the project successful together.

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