How to recover a project in crisis

Over the course of the last 8-9 years of my career, I have found myself in situations needing to “fix” some dark “RED” projects. This could be projects or even teams suffering from massive delivery issues, interpersonal conflicts, very limited progress, a complete lack of transparency and deadlines approaching very rapidly or even already passed by.

So, the realisation that I was often brought in to solve these situations, made me reflect upon; How does anybody actually ‘solve’ this type of situation? What works? What have I learned from this…

I wrote a few notes about it, tossed it around a few times and it turns out there actually is a pattern to it… And a 3 letter abbreviation to it as well..

So here goes… This is how I’ve helped and supported dark “RED” projects and teams over the past 8-9 years.

1. Stabilise the situation

If you are in a hole, stop digging. So that’s just a metaphor, but it’s pretty spot on. In this phase, people are typically very dissatisfied, no one really knows what’s going on, communication is unclear, there can be different kinds of clashes amongst team/project members or with stakeholders and so on. If you are with me this far, you probably know the drill…

At this point, I’ve experienced that the following is often very helpful:

Seize control of the flow of work
Often the flow of work is not just one flow, but work comes from 3.542 different channels. Aim to dramatically reduce the channels in which work flows to the team or project, so that new work only comes from very few and preferably just one channel.

Don’t underestimate the ‘exit of work’ either. How work is handed over, when solved. This can turn out to be an uncontrolled channel to new work.

This step often represents a big change for both team / project members and stakeholders. It involves new ways of working, defining some clear roles and aligning on expectations.

Get clarification on your mandate
Often, when put in these difficult situations, it turns out that the mandate of the insert any roles here is unclear, hence taking decisions is a long and slow process and killing ideas is almost impossible. Work piles up, because no one says: “No!”

So, at this point, besides managing all our issues and our inability to deliver, we are also forced to manage a big pile of work we will never actually do. Start saying “No!”. It works.

Take the first step to increase transparency:
Getting a very early and simple, yet clear picture on ‘what is where’ and having every single project / team member agree that this picture reflects reality, is your first target

At this point, you are not even prioritising or anything. You are almost just administrating or noting. And you might think, how is this helpful? Well the issue here is, that often people don’t even have this level of transparency and allignment. We need to get to this point, before we can start managing the work.

Establish simple mechanisms and loops
Establish very simple mechanisms to manage and optimise upon, as you learn more. Don’t jump straight to some dogmatic textbook example, but establish a few simple learning loops that will help you keep the level of transparency higher than before.

Start coaching the system
A lot of agile coaches and Scrum Masters will refrain from this either due to a lack of skills, confidence or understanding about WHY to start coaching. In a nutshell, the relationships in the system has been through a tough time and likely there has been episodes which have taken their toll.

The specific approach on how to do this is different from case to case, but if you don’t start coaching the system early, it will come back to bite you as the change you are driving is really picking up pace. In some cases, asking participants to design a team alliance, discuss their high dream / low dreams and what supports each can be enough.

Keep in mind, at this point you need one success story. You need one success story to build some confidence amongst the involved parties, who are suffering from lack of confidence and belief in the change. They’ve tried it all before or they’ve simply given up. You need to instil a bit of hope into the equation.

2. Optimise the system

So lets continue our metaphor a little… There is no more digging! The digging has stopped. Finally. Don’t get me wrong though, from step 1 to step 2 you surely surface a lot of digging, but that’s the point. Surfacing and intervening on behaviours and actions that are not bringing the team forward.

But ultimately, you will get there and the digging is now over. The sheer size of the hole you are in can be overwhelming, so now comes crunch time.

Optimise the flow of work
At this point, you catch all new work items early. Before they get going. That enables you to extend your ability to choose, which work items are processed and which are not selected for further processing. You can get into Business Value, OKR’s, Estimation techniques and more for selecting work.

At this point you can also establish and extend on your capabilities for managing work. You can keep it very simple or make it more advanced, based on the context. You can start experimenting with metrics such as WIP Limits or other ways of working that will support, what you are trying to achieve.

Increase the transparancy
So you have established a very simple, low practical level of transparancy. Now you want to keep this level of transparency and extend on it further. The state of the work you are trying to make transparent, should shift from a “one time” success to a continious, real time transparency of the flow of work. It has to become one, with your ways of working. Integrated.

When you got here, no one really knew what anyone was doing. That information has been made visible and alligned on once. Now it has to become the defacto way of working. The information has to be available at all times – and I am not talking about some project management tool with live-score integrated. No, we are talking interaction points, frequency, visibility and barriers to communication.

Enhance the learning loops
You have established some simple learning loops and now its time to optimize the learning available from each. More often that not, you will need at least a learning loop on product / progress and one on processes / ways of working. So at this point, the questions is, how can you enhance these learning loops so they become more valuable – so valuable that they are more or less the only guardrails you need, for managing this project.

Coach the business relationships
Where your initial coaching was very much about establish a shared direction, shared boundaries and a feeling of being in this together, it’s very likely that the next step of coaching should be focused on the business relationships. Things are going better, sure, but detrimental relationships are lurking below the surface and at the first sign of conflict they might re-surface and impair your progress.

So you wonna coach the entire group you are working with on their interactions and behaviors, the team toxins and anti-dotes, etc. You wonna increase the emotional and relational intelligence of the group.

3. Self-management going forward

You’ve had it in the back of your mind the whole time. From day one this has been your game. Now it’s here. This team must be able to maintain, continue and extend on what you have build together so far. They have to do it themselves. It’s time to focus on your exit strategy.

At this point the flow of work is pretty solid, transparency is high and doesn’t go out of sync for any longer than what you have deemed acceptable in the context, learning loops are thriving and the mandate has been tested and verified on more than one occasion. Basically, everyone understands the rules of the game and whil you still have issues and challenges the charecteristic of them are completely different from when you started.

You have good problems now. Fun issues. Things that make you want to stay up and consider, how can we solve these issues. Not the type of issues that make people want to stay in bed, as when you first started. But you still have a few things to sort out:

Roles & Responsibilities
While you been doing the above work, roles and responsibilities have ofcourse been something you have worked with. Hopefully, you have put forward some initial guidelines, but now they have also emerged. So it’s time to reflect upon the roles and responsibilities and carve them out even further. Look for uncertainty, hesitation and doubt about who does what. You want to iron that out before you can leave.

Thinking and acting is not the same
You can tell someone what to do and how to do it, but you cannot tell anyone how to think. At this point you are looking for flaws in the thinking, as those will give rise to future issues. This goes for team members, core roles you have defined and the leadership team. You want to surface where the thinking is not in line with what is needed and then coach that.

Coach to shift consciousness
So your initial coaching was all about shared direction and belonging and then group interactions and behaviours. Your next step of coaching should be focused on shifting consciousness. Just because things are going better, doesn’t mean they won’t get worse in the future.

So if you can leave one thing behind, that transcends frameworks, processes, tools, ways of working and churning work items into value, it should be: people who know and understand more about themselves and their impact on others. In order to do so, you need to coach the organization and relationships in it.

Together with the tools, processes, roles, frameworks and all the improvements you have helped adapt to the context, people who know and understand themselves and their interactions with others better, will make a lasting impact on the business and the people you.


And to summarize the above, the 3 step method becomes:

  1. Stabilize
  2. Optimize
  3. Self-manage

So, I guess you guys can complete the abbreviation yourself :)