Project Turnaround: Strategies to Rescue Failing Projects and Portfolios


Project Turnaround StrategiesWhen a project is failing, it's time for a turnaround. In this post, we'll explore strategies for project turnaround and learn from an expert in the field, Amanda Oakenfull now at IBM, and previously at Deloitte.

Amanda Oakenfull is known in Australian project management circles as The Mechanic and with good reason. She's the person you call when your project is failing.

Project Turnaround Expertise: A Conversation with Amanda Oakenfull

Amanda has an enviable track record in turning around projects, programs, and portfolios. She has a reputation for being able to fix almost anything and I wanted to know what her secret is.

Listen to the Podcast:

In this 17-minute podcast, Amanda shares her insights and nuggets of wisdom on how she turns around failing projects. Some key takeaways include the importance of prioritization, the effective use of project management tools, and embracing change management.

Here’s a really high-level summary of the discussion.

Why projects fail

If you’ve seen our recent webinar on how to reduce project failure, you’ll know that project prioritization is the root cause of many failed projects.

Well, I put this to Amanda and she pushed right back at me. She reckons that poor prioritization and planning is at the heart of all project failure.

Think about that, for a moment. The seeds for project failure are planted well before the kick-off meeting. Of course, good planning and prioritization doesn’t guarantee success, but your failure rate will be higher if your prioritization process is weak – and most are weak… even if you think you’re using good process.

So, there’s a direct link between a good project prioritization process and successful project outcomes, but there’s more to delivering great projects than just picking a good portfolio. It's essential to understand the role of strategic portfolio management in this context. Strategic portfolio management ensures that the projects and programs in your portfolio are aligned with the overall organizational strategy, which helps in achieving the desired outcomes and objectives.

A tradesman knows how to use his tools

One of the really interesting points that Amanda made was that many very bright people are leaving university with a degree in program management, or take one of the more popular certification programs in project management, but they really don’t know how to use the tools of the trade.

She’s not talking about which PPM software you should use. Amanda is referring to the basic tools such as risk registers.

Using them correctly will enable you, as she puts it, to see through the windshield of your car more clearly. You’ll be able to see where you’re going and you’ll be able to navigate around obstacles.

Her message here is that you should invest in learning how to use the tools and you should not fall into the trap of looking at a risk register, say, as “just another document”.

Look forward, don’t look back… then “own it!”

Finance has a role to play in portfolio, program and project management, but finance is primarily about looking backwards. This sentiment might seem odd coming from Amanda (Deloitte is, after all, primarily an accounting company), but she’s very clear;

Fixing projects is about looking forwards, not backwards.

So looking forwards means:

So, now you can see forward and the governance process is working, the PM can step up and really “own” the project success. Amanda sees many PMs who don’t really take accountability; for their projects; they often push all the problems into the risk register and let the governance forums wrestle with the issues.

Now this doesn’t mean that all PMs avoid accountability. Remember, Amanda is The Mechanic and mostly deals with “broken projects” and a common theme across those projects is low accountability on the part of the PM.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean the PM is bad – sometimes it’s the environment that prevents the PM taking ownership. In any case, fixing this will drive a culture that gets stuff done.

Don’t let the crocodiles get you!

Long before her time in consulting Amanda was in the Navy. That’s where she learned to use the tools-of-the-trade and that’s not all she learned.

Crocodiles, it seems, learn very quickly. They watch people (and animals) looking for the patterns in their behavior that will lead to an easy meal for the croc. And people are very predictable – we all do kind of the same thing every day, sometimes for years.

And this can totally kill your project.

Why? Well, projects are typically about changing the way you do something and people resist change. This means that change management is really important in landing successful projects.

Amanda had some thoughts on what change management means and what good change managers look like. They are people who can “get stuff done and are driven”. It’s not about being a fluffy communicator, it’s about figuring out the impact of change and then working on a way to land that change.

Notice, none of this is about managing changes to scope- which is also sometimes called change management. In fact, Amanda observes that many people she comes across are confused between change management (managing changes in process to make sure they stick) and managing changes in scope – they are totally separate processes that are probably not even done by the same person!

Surprisingly Simple Project Turnaround Strategies

I must say that I was rather surprised at how simple Amanda made it all sound.

Project management is a trade, it seems, one where you have to invest in learning to use the tools. It’s a craft where experience counts. Picking the right projects is vital, but so is maintaining basic registers so you can see where you’re going and manage your governance process effectively.

And make sure you don’t neglect “real” change management…. Those crocodiles are hungry, after all.

Webinar Recording: Are you too in love with your projects?

Join Amanda and Stuart for their Valentines special, where they explore the parallels between relationships and project management, specifically when it's time to fix and when it's time to move on.

Like a relationship, a project is an organic, human entity not a mechanical process. So those tools and methodologies are great, but start your diagnosis with the people:

  • Engage leadership: Their strategy should be the lifeblood of the project. Not just words in the infographic, but the intent you learn from interviewing them
  • Understand communication: Where have relationships broken down? The connectivity, body language and interactions between project members is key, so understand if it's broken
  • Challenge sentimental attachment: Do you have projects where you are personally invested, which just need to be stopped. It's painful to make that write-off, but sometimes it has to happen.
  • Jettison the passengers: Large projects acquire 'supporters' who are 'involved' but not adding value. Be harsh; if you don't make the boat go faster, then get out of the boat. Make the room smaller for better decision making.
  • Don't point fingers: Looking back just drives conflict and politics. Focus on how to progress effectively.

She also dives into the challenge of fictional project reporting.

  • Executive cannot make good decisions with Watermelon Reporting, where it's green on the outside... but red in the middle.
  • Having the wrong KPIs can disguise failure by measuring the wrong data.
  • Underfunding the reporting function often leaves executives making big calls off poor data
  • Look for the disjoint between how people 'feel' (gut instinct) vs. reported progress. if they are mis-aligned you've probably got a reporting problem
  • Dependency reporting beats risk reporting every time. Focus on milestones and potential areas where things might go wrong. The risk register is a back-stop not a tool for making proactive interventions.


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