Episode 16 — Project Recovery and Turnaround Part 2

Episode #16
Original Air Date: 08.16.2016

27 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Andy Crowe, Bill Yates, Nick Walker

This episode features our in-house experts, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. They are project managers for project managers. They are the subject matter experts and instruct other project managers and those working to become one.

Last episode we talked about projects that are in trouble-- we want to catch the trouble before they go up in flames. Tune in for more valuable tips from the team on how to keep you project on track and what signs to look for when your project's at risk for being in trouble.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"One of the first things that I think you need to do a lot of times is get rid of the bad actors on the team. I think you need to let people go, if you remotely have that authority or influence in order to do so. So I’m a big fan of that. I feel like – I think, ultimately, every failure is a leadership failure at some level."

- Andy Crowe

"One of the keys to getting this ship righted, to make sure we don’t hit the bottom of the ocean, is we’ve got to start communicating like crazy. We’ve got to ramp up our communications with the team, with the sponsor, with the customer, with our manager."

- Bill Yates

"Leaders step up. I like the fact that you bring the word “ownership” into this, Nick. The project manager needs to own that issue or own that trouble. And, no, that doesn’t mean that I never sleep again, or that I’m completely consumed by this, and I go home and kick the dog and curse and all that kind of stuff. No. But I need to be focused on this thing. And, man, I need to have my team in there with me. This is a – project management is a team sport. I’ve got to have my whole project team engaged in this, too."

- Bill Yates

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NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Every two weeks we get together to talk about what matters to you as a professional project manager. We cover what it takes to get certified, what it takes to do the job of project management.

I’m your host, Nick Walker. And beside me are our in-house experts, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. They are project managers for project managers. They instruct other project managers and those working to become one. So, guys, last time we talked about projects that are in trouble. And we want to catch the trouble before they go up in flames. We talked about a lot of ways to do that. So let’s recap just a little bit and then go forward and talk about how we get to the end and really make this project a success.

ANDY CROWE: You know what, Nick, this is something we need to be talking about in the project management community. So the approach that most companies take is they say, well, we’re going to look at ways to never get in this situation. But the truth is over two thirds of projects come in over time and over budget, and they don’t meet the critical success factors. They don’t hit that target, that elusive butterfly of success. They never capture it in their net. And so what do you do if you’re in that situation? And to be honest, I’ve taught and mentored PMs before who live in that situation, so it’s not an unusual thing. It’s just difficult to talk about.

NICK WALKER: Two thirds of projects. That’s an amazing statistic.

ANDY CROWE: Yeah, the actual numbers are worse than that. But we’re going to be happy and say two thirds.

BILL YATES: And it’s a reality. So why not get tooled up in learning how to do this part of my job as a project manager? And we, you know, the first session we talked about the first step is identifying that, identifying when I’m in a project that is in serious trouble, so how to detect it. We talked about smelling the smoke and looking at the canary.

ANDY CROWE: Yeah, Bill liked the more intuitive approach, and I advocated for the data-driven approach. But those two meet, absolutely. Those two intersect.

BILL YATES: Absolutely.

NICK WALKER: And then we have to come up with just the correct approach. And there are a couple of different ways to go there, too.

BILL YATES: Yeah. Some companies, they go with the tiger team, the parachute in the expert that’s me to come fix everything. And then what we really focused on more was the do-it-yourself, the you are leading a project. You’ve determined that it is in serious trouble. So what are you going to do about it?

NICK WALKER: And I loved how you emphasized so much the need to try to keep calm because intuitively this is the time that you’re going to be the least calm, perhaps.

BILL YATES: Yeah. You’ve gone to that “in case of emergency” box. You’ve busted it open, and you’re trying to calm yourself down so that you can actually lead the team with competency and professionalism.

ANDY CROWE: Right. We talked about last time nobody’s at their best leading out of fear.

NICK WALKER: And then there was that aha moment for me where we talked about trying to move forward, but in order to do that you’ve got to move backward before you do.

BILL YATES: Right. Yeah, you have to do root cause analysis. You have to fully understand what is the problem. Maybe, to Andy’s point before, we’ve got some reports that have shown some troubling trends. We have the data in front of us. Now we’ve got to roll our sleeves up, get into it, and figure out what is causing us to miss our milestones. Why are our budgets suddenly blowing up? Why are all the errors and defects suddenly cropping up where they weren’t before?

ANDY CROWE: So Bill, let me ask you a question in starting us off in the next step here. You’re dealing with a lot of different dynamics. Some of those may, we talked about the last time, when those relate to scope and how to simplify and refocus on critical success factors.


ANDY CROWE: What happens when all of that’s okay, and the real problem is in the team? What do you do?

BILL YATES: Yeah. Now, if you identify the problem as being related to team members, what do you do with that? That’s tricky. That’s tricky.

ANDY CROWE: It can be tricky. I think the first thing you’ve got to do is, again, even some root cause analysis there. But I’m going to confess something here at the risk of smearing my reputation myself a little bit. I have – I used to be on a tiger team that was sent in to troubled projects for customers. I worked with a consulting company. And we went around, and when a project was in trouble, we came in and tried to help right that project.

One of the first things that I think you need to do a lot of times is get rid of the bad actors on the team. I think you need to let people go, if you remotely have that authority or influence in order to do so. So I’m a big fan of that. I feel like – I think, ultimately, every failure is a leadership failure at some level. And so a lot of times what would happen is they would have let the project manager go, and they brought in our team to kind of help figure out what was going on.

So that had already been taken care of. The PM had already been let go. Sometimes it hadn’t. Sometimes it was a technical lead. Sometimes it was a business analyst. Sometimes it was a programmer, et cetera. And I’m a believer that, you know what, be decisive. Take decisive resource action.

BILL YATES: It’s tough. For a leader to lead, you’ve got to have followers. And those followers, they’re looking very closely at the leader and how does she respond in a situation? How does he lead in a situation? It’s one thing when you’re partying, having fun because you’re hitting the milestones, the customer’s happy, the budget’s – you’re finding more money. You know, we want more scope. We want more of everything.

ANDY CROWE: Everybody should have one project like that in their life. I have. I’ve had one.

BILL YATES: But for the rest of us, the reality is, so we’re dealing with this troubled project. People are looking to see how the leader is leading. And in many cases that is the project manager. Is that person decisive? Are they able to, again, completely get their hands around that root cause, that trouble? And if that is an individual, if I look in my hands, and I’ve got a person in my hands, then what am I going to do about it?

ANDY CROWE: Well, I can answer that. So you act decisively.


ANDY CROWE: You let the person go on the project. You move them on to someplace they can be more successful. So there’s some of that is for the sake of the project in general, sort of at a high-level holistic sense. But there’s science behind this. So Virginia Satir came up years ago with something called Family Systems Theory. And it really translates beyond the family. Family Systems Theory says that you may not be able by yourself to change the whole dynamic. You may not be responsible for the whole dynamic. But you can change the way you’re behaving in a system, and that will change the whole system.

Letting somebody go who’s perhaps not performing at peak performance, who hasn’t been doing what they’ve been doing, just changing that one ingredient will change the whole thing. And think about it this way, too. Think about it in the sense of ingredients. You’ve probably cooked before. I love to cook. And when you do, sometimes you can no longer taste the individual ingredients. But it’s the way they’re combining. It’s the chemistry and the interaction of those ingredients that’s actually producing something that sort of transcends the individual pieces.


ANDY CROWE: That’s what happens with teams. Teams – and it can happen in a good way. And we’ve all seen that. And it can happen in a very toxic bad way. And so sometimes, even if it’s not the person’s individual fault, moving them off the project will change the whole chemistry, the whole interaction, and the whole dynamic. And it sends a good message.

NICK WALKER: So it’s not always the project manager that needs to leave.

ANDY CROWE: Right, correct. Now, that’s our tribe. So we’re kind of dealing with our own dirty laundry here. But, no, it oftentimes is not. But if the PM has any authority to reshape the team, just rebooting the team and refactoring it can oftentimes be a good thing.

BILL YATES: And I want to go back to that notion that the team’s watching. I’ll confess, the older I get, the more I’m convinced that a strong leader assesses the team and determines, is there a weaker person on this team, or people on the team that need to be let go? Because those top performers, let’s say – let’s just use a rating. We’ll say I have eights, nines, and tens on my team. If there’s a six on the team, or a five on the team, the eights and nines and tens are watching me as the leader to see do I put up with that, do I tolerate it.

ANDY CROWE: Correct.

BILL YATES: What do I do with that individual? Do I try to train them? Do I try to improve their performance? At what point do I make the decision I need to move them off the team? Because the eights, nines, and tens are saying, I want to be on the best team, and I want the strong leader who will make my team stronger.

NICK WALKER: And you know, Andy, something you said just really underlines something that was in a conversation I was having just yesterday with a friend of mine. We were talking about a team that I’m on. And he says there are three C’s with teamwork. One is competence, character, and the third one is chemistry. And it seems to me that chemistry is so incredibly vital and maybe even the hardest one to achieve.

ANDY CROWE: It is the hardest one because you can’t always anticipate how different team personalities, how different leadership styles are going to interact. Sometimes you’d be really surprised. Everybody’s looked at, you know, you’ve seen the videos online of a pig and an alligator becoming best friends or whatever. You know, nobody – okay, maybe not. But you know what I’m talking about.

BILL YATES: It ends badly.

ANDY CROWE: And the idea is – yeah, they become really good friends. But the idea is that sometimes you can’t predict how these friendships are going to happen and how these alliances are going to happen and chemistry where you think two people might destroy each other, and they actually end up transcending that. So it can happen a bunch of different ways. I’m a believer in rebooting the chemistry. And I think, Bill, your question was when? And I think sooner rather than later. I think be decisive. You know, you look at ball teams, and they’re constantly trading and moving people around, even people who maybe don’t need to be moved off yet, because they’re trying to reboot the chemistry of that overall organization and solve a particular problem.

BILL YATES: That’s true. And the one piece of advice I want to bring up here, because this is such a big move, let’s say I’ve determined, okay, I need to move this person off the team. It’s the right move to make. Yeah, it scares me. I’m thinking about the impact it has on the other people. Just thinking purely, too, about the tasks and responsibilities that individual has. So I’m nervous about it. I’m going to throw back on Colin Powell here: sleep on it. You know, one of his, “It Worked for Me,” you know, that book that he has on leadership. One of his points is it ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning. So sleep on it. You know, if I’ve made my decision, sleep on it, see how I feel about it in the morning.

ANDY CROWE: And my twist on that would be let the person go and then go sleep on it. And then it’ll feel way better in the morning. I have a friend who is a police officer, and he’s got a very stark take. You know, when he gets called to domestic disputes, he lets the people know, when I get called, somebody’s going to jail. And so it’s a matter of who. And then he decides who. But somebody’s going to jail. And he’s got a whole lot of reasons behind that. I’m not questioning that so much. But my take, and I haven’t been quite this tough in a long time, but my take was, when I get put on a troubled project to right it, somebody’s getting fired right away.

BILL YATES: There’s a reason that you are there.

ANDY CROWE: There’s a reason I’ve been called in. If this were working, then you wouldn’t need me. And so somebody’s – and that sounds grim. And I don’t necessary mean fired. I just mean moved off the project.


ANDY CROWE: But we are going to change this up. You have to change the dynamic. If you keep doing it the same way, you’re going to get the same results.

BILL YATES: And I’ve been harping on the message that it sends to the team. Think about the message that it sends to the customer. Think about the message it sends to the sponsor. They’re looking for leadership. They’re looking for decisive action. They are spending money. They’re sending resources into something. They want to see results.

NICK WALKER: So let’s say we haven’t brought in Andy to do all these deeds.

ANDY CROWE: I’m ruining my own reputation right here. I’ve become a kinder, gentler person later in life, Nick.

NICK WALKER: Oh, I’m sure, I’m sure. But say we don’t have to go to the tiger team approach. Say we’re going to do it ourselves. And we’ve looked at our people to say, okay, we can do the job with these people. Are there other problems that we can overcome instead of just getting rid of somebody?

ANDY CROWE: Yeah. I want to back up because I want to say this. Just because you’re doing it internally doesn’t mean that the team needs to remain the same. Think some way of refactoring the team. So let’s say you don’t have the authority to let anybody go. You can still change assignments. You can shuffle people around. You can change responsibilities. People learn from other people’s mistakes a lot of times. But the one thing I would say is, if you’re going to stay with the same critical success factors, you’re going to keep the same scope package, and you’re going to keep the same team, you can expect more problems ahead, a lot more.

NICK WALKER: So where do we go from here, then? We’ve got the people that we want. We’ve got the team members that can work together. We’ve got good chemistry. What’s the next step?

BILL YATES: One of the keys to getting this ship righted, to make sure we don’t hit the bottom of the ocean, is we’ve got to start communicating like crazy. We’ve got to ramp up our communications with the team, with the sponsor, with the customer, with our manager. We need to let people know, first of all, think about the – if you’ve ever been in some of those roles, think about the frustration you have when you know there’s a problem, but you haven’t heard it, you’ve just seen it. Right? You haven’t heard it from the project manager.

And that’s a very – you want that project manager coming to you proactively and saying, hey, we realize we’ve missed a milestone. We realize this piece of technology’s not going to work the way we promised. Here’s what we’re going to do about it. These people need to have their communication ramped up. I’ve got a plan. I’ve got a handle on this. Here’s what the team’s going to do. And to me, Andy, I see it as, if I’m meeting, let’s say, once a month with my sponsor, now I’m saying I want to meet with you once a week.


BILL YATES: If I’m meeting with the team once a day, let’s say, now we’re in crisis mode. And I’ve declared it. I declare a crisis mode. I’ve hit the alarm. And we’re going to meet once in the morning first thing. You know, we’re going to meet at 8:30; we’re going to meet at 1:00 o’clock; we’re going to do a wrap-up at 5:00. I want to see where things are moving along.

ANDY CROWE: Right. So, Bill, if I’m understanding what you’re saying, it sounds like it’s more cowbell.

BILL YATES: Absolutely.

ANDY CROWE: More communication.

BILL YATES: Man, I’ve got two of them. I’m got them right hand and left hand. I’m just slinging those babies.

ANDY CROWE: Right. And so one of the things we can do here is more communication. But it’s really the bigger idea is more transparency and openness. You know, there’s an ethic within Agile that they’ve really added to the project management world of big, visible charts. And the idea is you don’t hide. You let people know where your problems are. The more, again, back to this idea of relating out of fear, you’ve got to let that go.


ANDY CROWE: And if you’re having trouble, if you’re having trouble hitting something, then put it out there for everybody to see. The team members, the stakeholders, everybody needs to be able to see it.

BILL YATES: And I think it’s worth saying, Nick, to me, when Andy and I were thinking through this, he brings this point up, and I think, this is not intuitive. I think about most project managers are smart people. They want to go figure it out and solve it on their own. They’re a little bit embarrassed that the project’s gotten to where it is, and they want to go fix it and then come back and go, hey, hey, hey, we had a problem, but I’ve got the solution. As a matter of fact, everything’s looking good now. You can’t do that here. You’ve got to get the team involved, you’ve got to be transparent, and you’ve got to rebuild trust.

ANDY CROWE: Right. It goes back to what we talked about in the last podcast, Mahan Khalsa’s book “Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play.” We touched on this idea that you have to really understand the problem. You have to steep in it. And you don’t hide from it. And it’s so hard because Khalsa goes on to say people don’t want to talk about problems. They want to talk about solutions. And they get intensely uncomfortable. And the first time he pointed that out, it resonated. The more I’ve gone through my career watching that dynamic, people get intensely uncomfortable. They get defensive when you’re talking about problems, especially when you start doing real root cause analysis. People get really uncomfortable.

NICK WALKER: And it seems very uncomfortable to talk about those problems with a sponsor, a customer, or a stakeholder. I mean, my first reaction when you said that was like, really? You’re going to admit that you’re having problems to the people who are paying you?

BILL YATES: Yeah. They’re going to find out anyway. So as soon as we know, why not engage them in the solution and bring them along with it? And again, we’ve got to rebuild trust.

ANDY CROWE: One of the tools in project management that is not used enough is lessons learned. And lessons learned technically asks one question. You may call it a postmortem or after-action review. It asks one key question. What would we do differently if we had this to do over again? Well, you can ask that at a troubled point in the project. And really asking it a different way is what are we going to change? We have a chance to look forward. But I would never go to a sponsor or a senior manager or stakeholders in a project and say, “We’re having all these problems.”

And you know what the two worst answers that project managers give a lot of times: “We’re going to do more, and we’re going to try harder.” And those don’t work. That is a recipe for failure. You have to change, you know, because then, oh, well, you’re not working hard enough? That’s the problem? You know, I never want to hear those words from a PM, to say, well, hey, what are we going to do differently? Oh, we’re just going to try harder. Oh, yeah. No. You know, then that person needs to be let go right there because they haven’t been trying hard enough.


NICK WALKER: So we’re at the point where we’ve taken ownership of the problem. We’ve admitted where we need to go. We know the steps we need to take. So how do we finish strong?

BILL YATES: Leaders step up. I like the fact that you bring the word “ownership” into this, Nick. The project manager needs to own that issue or own that trouble. And, no, that doesn’t mean that I never sleep again, or that I’m completely consumed by this, and I go home and kick the dog and curse and all that kind of stuff. No. But I need to be focused on this thing. And, man, I need to have my team in there with me. This is a – project management is a team sport. I’ve got to have my whole project team engaged in this, too.

So to the point that we’ve identified the problem, come up with solutions, prioritized and ranked those, now as a project manager I need to lead my team. Who’s going to own this piece? Who’s going to own this task? Who’s going to own finding this solution? And drive that out.

ANDY CROWE: And you know what, this is a key thing, that leadership styles need to change, depending on what’s going on in the project. So let’s say the project’s going really well. You don’t want a directing, strong, autocratic leader. But if the project’s in trouble, like we’re talking about here, then you really need somebody to come in, roll up his or her sleeves, and start taking decisive action.

I want to give you an example of seeing this. Years ago I did what’s called a “shadow shift” at Grady Hospital in their Trauma Center. And basically they paired us with an ER doctor and let us walk around with them and kind of understand what they do in great detail. So I’m walking around this hospital in the Trauma Center. And somebody had been in a car wreck. And it was really calm. And the whole way that the team approached was really calm. Another lady had been shot. First time I’d ever seen a gunshot wound up close; you know? So then the way they were dealing with that was a little bit differently.

But then somebody was life-flighted in. Okay, so the helicopter lands. And now there’s a team of doctors. There’s a team of nurses. Everybody has a role. And it was very interesting to watch. When the doctor that I was paired with came in, he took – he was the senior doctor on the shift. He took control and started assigning other doctors to do things. And some of the doctors were doing things that you would have expected nurses to, et cetera. Everybody’s working as a team. But it was fascinating because his whole dynamic changed. He was much more autocratic, rather than being sort of a supportive coaching leader.

Now, all that said, coaching is sort of the gold standard. That’s where we want to get. We want to get to this point where everybody is expected to do their job, and the coach just helps fine-tune and encourage them on and look at it from a macro level and sort of help remove obstacles. That’s what coaches do. But that’s not always going to be possible. When the project is falling apart, when the team is in dysfunction, sometimes they need to take a more autocratic style.

BILL YATES: That’s such a good analogy. And I know that brings very visual images to you. But I think about triage. That’s really what we’re doing. We’re doing triage on this project. We’re identifying what has gone wrong, what is the problem, and what can the team do about it? And we’re prioritizing. We’re making tough decisions. We’re having difficult conversations with customers. Hey, we have these requirements that we have promised you as a part of this release. We can’t do that, not for this budget, not on this schedule. We’re having to make those tough calls.

ANDY CROWE: Back to refactoring the team, I have a friend who’s CEO of an energy company out West. And his team was having trouble just getting certain things done and moving past certain obstacles. And so tying this back, he brought in one of Colin Powell’s former sort of chiefs, one of his top people. And this person’s job was just to get things done and to move through obstacles. He said it was fascinating to watch the way this particular person would identify obstacles and move beyond them, move the team around them. Things that would stonewall other people, this leader was able to walk in, be decisive, and overcome the obstacles, ask the right questions, and move beyond. So it’s just going to vary, depending on the need.

BILL YATES: There’s an art to this, too. I think, guys, I think about, as a leader, the challenge of recognizing the problem and the impact it could have on our team, on our project, on our customer relationship; balancing that with the optimism of we can figure this out. We’re great at triage. We’re great troubleshooters. We’re great problem solvers.

ANDY CROWE: Diagnosing.

BILL YATES: Yeah. We can diagnose it. We’re professionals. We can get this done. Let’s make the tough decisions. But keeping that team fully engaged, making sure that they’re not gripped by fear, that they’re okay with I can come up with a creative solution here. I think I’ve got something that will solve this. And I have no fear of failure. Right? So creating that safety as a leader where, yeah, we do have an issue. We have a problem we’re trying to solve. But I trust you guys, and we can do this together. And it’s okay if we come up with a crazy idea. Let’s try it. Let’s take a spike. Let’s see if this thing will work. And let’s move forward.

NICK WALKER: It strikes me that all along the way in this process you’re looking for learning opportunities. And of course at the very end is a great learning opportunity. I experience this myself at the end of every television show that I’m a part of. We always have a postmortem. What went well? What went wrong? And we can apply that to the next time. We certainly can do that here; can’t we?

ANDY CROWE: We can. You know what, Nick, formally in project management we don’t generally talk about what went well. And do you know why?


ANDY CROWE: Because you had a plan, and everything was supposed to go to plan. So all you talk about is the variances. You’re only supposed to, now, I know we a lot of times have…

BILL YATES: We’re so negative.

ANDY CROWE: Yeah. But the idea is you say, if we had it to do over again, what would we do differently? Because the gold standard was written down. It was documented. It was a plan. All we’re really interested in is the variances. Now, that’s sort of a hard line approach. But that is sort of the formal way that we do this lessons learned idea. The most important thing is to learn. It is to go back and understand. And again, it’s uncomfortable sometimes to look at the real problem. But there’s no substitute for it.

BILL YATES: And I think if you were to ask, “Andy and Bill, what are the lessons learned that are most vivid to you throughout your career as a project manager?” it’s these troubled projects. So I think about, from a learning standpoint, I learn more when things go poorly than perhaps when things have gone well.

ANDY CROWE: I think that’s a sign of a good leader, Bill. I get that. That resonates with me. And for me, I would say probably 80 percent plus of the real root problems have gone back to team and team dynamics, for me. You make the rookie mistakes with planning early on in your career. Once you kind of figure out how the plumbing of project management works – the planning, the estimating, the scheduling, the risk, the buffers, all of those things, the budgets – once you figure out how that works, then you start realizing projects get done through people, through human beings.

BILL YATES: Yeah, it’s all about relationships.

ANDY CROWE: It is all about relationships and those dynamics and that strange chemistry that kind of comes into play.

NICK WALKER: There’s a song right at the end of the Disney movie “Zootopia” where the singer talks about new mistakes, making new mistakes. Not the old ones. And so I guess, as long as you keep making new mistakes, you’re going to keep learning.

Song: “Try Everything” by Shakira https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6rP-YP4c5I

BILL YATES: That’s right.

ANDY CROWE: I love it.

NICK WALKER: Well, Andy Crowe, Bill Yates, as always, thanks for sharing your expertise on this subject and so many others that we get a chance to talk about here on Manage This. That’s it for us here on this podcast. We hope you’ll tune back in the day after Labor Day, September 6th, for our next edition of Manage This.

In the meantime, you can visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us. And tweet us at @manage_this if you have a quick comment for us or a question for our experts about project management certifications. We’d love to hear from you. That’s all for this episode. Talk to you soon. In the meantime, keep calm and Manage This.

2 responses to “Episode 16 — Project Recovery and Turnaround Part 2”

  1. Michael Koltuniak says:

    I would like to get a copy of the transcript for Episode 15 & 16, on troubled projects, please.

    • Maggie Carter says:

      Hi Michael– the transcripts for those episodes are located on each page, click on the orange button titled “Transcript” and it will pull down the transcript. Here is the link to Episode 15: https://www.velociteach.com/2016/08/episode-15/ you can copy and paste into a word doc if you need the transcript in a different format.

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