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Leading Troubled Projects: Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask First

by Vikas Hazrati on Feb 22, 2008 |
Consultant and test project manager Fiona Charles recently wrote an interesting article in StickyMinds on leading troubled projects. She says she sometimes seeks out such projects, because they offer tremendous opportunities for creativity and accelerated learning! Though her thoughts are more aligned towards testers, they do give valuable insights into how an agile team can lead a troubled project and try to turn it around.

Fiona clarifies that there is a difference between a 'troubled project' and a 'doomed project'. It is not always easy to tell the difference. If the team aligns its thoughts on how to make a positive difference and the actions seem to be making a positive impact then the project is a troubled project which can be turned around. If the actions do not make a difference then the project is a death march and it is time to say good bye.

Fiona shared how she maintains the right frame of mind to allow her to solve problems creatively and devise tactical solutions. She lists the following strategies for surviving, thriving and playing a part in the turnaround of a troubled project:
 
Just the Facts, Ma'am
A clear and calm presentation of facts can calm things down. Your first priority is to get clear information about the quality of the system.
 
Play Nice With Others
To turn a project around, team members need to trust and be open to each other's ideas. Nothing destroys openness faster than blaming or dropping bombs on colleagues in meetings.
 
Take Care of Your Team
Troubled projects take a toll on everyone, but they're particularly hard on those with the least power. If you manage a team, make sure you support them through these rough times.  (Agile team members can help in this area too).
 
Secure Your Own Oxygen Mask First
Empathy, logic, and creativity will help you through a difficult time and offer value to the project. You can't access them effectively if you are short of sleep and cranky.

The Testing Hot Seat
If your team has distinct testing roles be aware that troubled projects present particular challenges for testers and test managers. When the bug rate of arrival goes off the scale, testing slows down, and everyone’s anxiety level goes up.
 
Keep Your Knees Bent
A troubled project is not the time for rigid process over progress.
 
Remember--It Can Happen To You
You may not seek out a project rescue. But you can end up on a troubled project without trying.
 
Stephen Cohen seems to believe that it is easier and always helpful to stay out of trouble than to rescue a troubled project. He has presented a list of things to do to stay out of trouble. His number one rule? It sound obvious, but when trouble starts, teams too often retreat into self-protective behaviours:
Talk to each other.  The hands down number 1 action that can prevent a project from becoming a failure is the free and open exchange of ideas.
However, if the project does end up in trouble then the team needs well-defined strategies to try to turn it around.

Fiona concluded by saying:
The strategies I've described can help you maintain the right frame of mind to access your own creativity and devise tactical solutions to project problems. If you can do that, you, too, can enjoy troubled projects and develop your project skills.
To turn a project around the team needs to focus heavily on soft skills and inter-personal communication - they can't simply rely on the process. The keys here seem to be positive action and a creative solution-finding attitude** of each team member.


** Related InfoQ News: Responsibility, Personal Agility, and Other Touchy-Feely Ideas
 

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