How to Take Over an Existing Project (And Look Good Doing It)

How to Take Over an Existing Project (And Look Good Doing It)

There are many reasons why a project may need to change hands. Some reasons are fairly innocuous. The previous manager moved or a company reorganization required a reshuffling of responsibilities. Or they might have left the company.

Or the reason might have been more dire. The project is in trouble. There are big financial and deadline disasters looming and the stakeholders have held the previous project manager responsible and brought you in to save the day.

Whichever the scenario, you have a team waiting on your direction, a project to complete, a sponsor who needs to feel the confidence that you have everything handled. And you have the leftovers of your predecessors which maybe a lot…or a little. Where to start?

You need a “Project Takeover Checklist”

This checklist is designed to understand exactly what you’re walking into. It will answer the two biggest questions you need answered in order to move forward:

  • What is the current state of this project?
  • Has sufficient planning been done so that the path forward is clear?

Until you have the answers to these questions, not much can get done on the project. Let’s discuss how you get there.

  1. Understand Your Role
    Figure out what authority the program manager (now you) has on this project. It isn’t necessarily the same in every situation. Check the project charter and see what it says about your responsibilities. Understanding your role is a good step even if it isn’t well-documented. If you are having a hard time getting clarification on this, talk to your sponsor or line manager.
  2. Check for a Vision Statement
    What does the future look like when this project is complete? Maybe not all the steps are in place, but there should be an end goal in mind. If there isn’t, you can create one, get sponsor buy-in, and use it to build on.
  3. Check Project ObjectivesCost Efficiency
    Does the project have clear objectives? If the answer is anything but “yes”, then there is work to do. Clear outputs and benefits should be obvious for all projects. Otherwise, get to work making the necessary corrections. This may i nvolve a lengthy meeting with the project sponsor to help define the project or if it’s close but not quite, just a shorter sit-down to get it on paper.
  4. Get a Copy of the Plan
    Is there a project plan? We’ve already looked for objectives and a vision. And there might be an excel spreadsheet or Google calendar with some shaded boxes showing a project schedule. But is there a plan? It might seem like the end of the world if there isn’t but not necessarily. If you’ve worked out the vision and the objectives, then the plan should fall into place nicely. You might be able to tell if you need a very structured plan or if a looser, month-to-month plan might be sufficient. You need at least enough planning so that the team knows their roles and responsibilities at all times and you have markers of progress by which to measure. There may be some archived documents that indicate a plan has been in place. Start there.
  5. Review Structure and Accountability
    Who is your project sponsor? What is the reporting schedule? What are the internal sign offs that are required? The hierarchy in any organization is an important part of the planning because sometimes those approvals take time. Make sure you know who needs to know what and when.
  6. Review the Budget
    Is the budget approved? How much has been spent? Is there a budget? These are very important questions to ask obviously. This is one of those times when it’s great to play the newbie card. Explain that you are just getting up to speed and ask for favors all over the place. It will sidestep the fact that you might be asking for copies of invoices a vendor knows your company has and you won’t be embarrassed.
  7. Define Resource Requirement
    What resources have been allocated to the project and what will be available in the future? If you only have certain team members for a short time and not the duration of the project, best to know now. If you have a PMO, consult with them on resource allocation. If you don’t have one, talk to the various team leaders and members of your team about their situations.
  8. Understand the Big Picture
    If you are new to the company or new to this part of it, finding out where this project fits in the overall company strategy is important. The project could be a money-maker, but is it one the CEO cares about? This will affect where you fall in the pecking order of competition for resources. While you can’t change your project’s priority, you can make sure you have a clear understanding of where it fits.
  9. Review the Communication Plan
    What is the communication structure? Depending on the type of project, you may have a lot of stakeholders at many levels. This is an aspect of the project that needs to be sorted out early in your investigation. Figuring out how to communicate effectively isn’t hard to work out and best to get it going soon.
  10. Get Your Hands on Everything
    Every piece of paper attached to your new project may not be important but until you put your eyes on it you won’t know that, will you? So better safe than sorry. This is another place to play the newbie card. Use your best detective skills to dig up everything that’s been done so far so you can figure out from the past what the future holds.

Now that you’ve done all this great work you can start asking the hard questions like why are certain elements missing? There may be a logical reason. Consider how you want the team to function with you at the head. This will be a factor of company culture so make sure you have studied that as well.

Pick the parts of the project plan that need the most work and focus there. Involve your team, keep your sponsor informed and stay transparent. In time, things will be chugging right along. And never, never, NEVER blame the last project manager for any reason. That’s all there is to say about that.