The ideal scenario
The project management theory is built on an ideal scenario. A project is initiated, a sponsor assigns a project manager, a team is selected (hopefully by the project manager based on competencies required), and everything is done by that team until the project is completed. The textbook includes some discussion on changes relating to team members. However, it is almost always assumed that the project manager is the same person from the beginning to the end of a project.
Changing the project manager
In my career as a professional, I often had to takeover some projects at the last minutes. The change in project managers can be the results of various reasons, including:
- previous project manager leaving the his position for a new one in the organization.
- previous project manager leaving the organization.
- reallocation of resources,
- project in trouble
Changing the project manager is something that happens. I always like to manage my projects in a way that it is not impossible to replace me. It is usually not a good sign if a transition for the project manager is not possible. Good project management should not be all in the head of the leader. Even if he is competent and successfully delivers the results, it is not look like magic.
Tips for project manager starting a new position
When I inherit a project that is already in progress, here are some of my tips to properly handle the transition.
Discuss with previous project manager
That would be a logical first step. It assumes a smooth transition. Honestly, I rarely had that privilege. Most of the time, I just had to take over and figure it out.
Identify the key milestones
That is one of the most difficult challenges when you change the project manager after the beginning. As the new project manager, you have to be very careful with key milestones that may be due in the very short-term. Otherwise, the results may be a disaster and not good for a career. Your assignment can quickly become a pain and a rapid failure. So that is one of the top questions I ask when I join a project already in progress.
The Sponsor may or may not know the answer. The team members may or may not know. Strangely, sometimes project manager keep key information private. I am not sure how this is supposed to bring the best of all team members, but I guess it bring more power to the project manager. So I ask everybody that question.
Review project charter and plan
I would review the project charter and project plan. Yes, in theory these documents are supposed to be perfect and comprehensive. I am talking here about reality. You may or may not find complete information in those documents. Consider them a starting point. They may need to be updated, and don’t hesitate to do so if needed. This is part of leadership: having the courage to make decision. You are a project manager, not just a task manager.
Discover the project team
It is important to discover the project team. It is important to know
- Who does what?
- the competencies of the team as a whole
- the work environment
You often do not have at this point the luxury of selecting your team members. This will be a test a leadership. How much can you inspire your team to perform and deliver the project? It is your job as a leader. As I said, project management is not just about being a task manager. Leadership brings inspiration to the team.
Take care of key stakeholders
Managing and communication with stakeholders is essential, especially if you are taking over the project after its beginning. They don’t know you and you don’t know them.
Establish quickly the list of key stakeholders. Yes, there should be a list in project documentation, but don’t assume anything. It may or may not be there. And even if it is there, it may be incomplete.
But taking care of stakeholders is more than managing a list. You have to contact them, talk to them and listen to them. Despite all technology, a meeting in person is still very powerful and sometimes needed.
Build relationships. And listen. The information will likely be useful in your transition, and the relationships will be precious in the success of your new project.
Don’t break anything
Whatever the project team is doing fine, let them continue. Even if it is not your preferred approach, if it works, it is usually much better to not interfere. It is easy to come in and break a team. So keep that in mind. A successful transition should not slow down or paralyze the project.
Improve when required
On the other hand, you have to show leadership and have the courage to make decisions. Whatever needs to be fixed should be fixed. It is a judgment call, based on your professional experience. Sometimes, it is also useful to have an informal network of professional friends to discuss. However, in the end, you are the leader and have the make decisions. I have seen in my career too many projects fail because the project manager downgraded his job to a task master and doesn’t want to make decisions. So make decisions and improve processes, tasks, plans, deliverables when required.
Becoming the project manager after the beginning of the project is always an interesting experience. It feels like the pace of the project is much faster. These projects provide more complexity and challenges, but also will give you excellent experiences.
So enjoy your new project, and make it a success, with the support of your team.
The extra box
Books on leadership transition
Michel Dion, PMP, CPA
Founder and Developer of Project-Aria
Discover my book:
Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers: Achieve Better Results in a Dynamic World