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5 Steps to Rescuing a Delayed Project

Published on 08 April 16
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If you’ve been in one or more large or enterprise software projects that have delayed, you’re definitely not in a minority. Historic statistics on large projects show that a large percentage of projects are either delayed or completely fail. The reasons for this vary, of course, but there’s a difference between delay and outright failure. While it may or may not be possible to rescue a failed or failing project, there are a number of steps that can be taken to rescue and progress a project that is delayed, but not completely failed. This is where decisive project management skills come in along with clarity of thought and firmness in the face of distracting noises and despondency among stakeholders.
5 Steps to Rescuing a Delayed Project - Image 1

Rescuing a delayed project involves a logical sequence of steps.

Take stock of the delay and its cause

This is probably the most important step. Usually there will be just one ultimate root cause for delay, but chances are that there may be more than one. Whatever the case is, it is important to be honest and acknowledge each cause. Delays could occur for a number of reasons ranging from poor leadership and project management to incorrect comprehension of key facts by either the business or project teams or both, and other factors like inadequate skills, delays due to rework, late receipt of external inputs or decisions, poor project planning, underestimation of effort or timelines, and so on. It is important to correctly identify the main issue so that a solution is found for the correct cause of delay.

Evaluate remedial options

In many cases, I’ve seen a knee jerk reaction to resolving project delay in the form of throwing additional people at it. This is not necessarily the best thing to do unless it has been found that underestimation of effort is the cause of delay and there is enough time left provided more people are available. Sometimes the solution lies in re-evaluating scope, or technology choices or methodology, none of which may be pleasant exercises from a social point of view. It may lie in having fresh discussions amongst stakeholders to more clearly understand expectations and what is slowing things down. Sometimes the problem is that the right expertise is not available in-house, which means that external help should be sought. Sometimes the problem is one of leadership, in which case the most drastic solution would be to change the leader, or to buffer the leadership with additional support from a higher or lateral level, depending on the context. Sometimes the problem is that critical dependencies are either not understood or not recognized, in which case they need to be highlighted to the right stakeholders. And sometimes, the solution is to just accept that the project is irretrievable for whatever reason, and further losses must be cut by just shutting it down.

Re-plan remaining work

Once a consensus has been obtained on the remedial measures, an analysis must be done of the work in progress and a revised plan and estimate must be done afresh of the remaining work to be done. Chances are that the project must be re-planned due to the selection of a new strategy for its completion. If deadlines cannot be changed, perhaps the project scope that can be delivered within those deadlines has to be reworked, and the project has to be delivered in phases. Re-planning work may call for additional budget as well, and so this must also factored and approved. If it is not available, the previous step may need to be revisited to evaluate other options again. In general, all aspects of the project plan must be revisited and revalidated.

Re-allocate resources

Once the revised plan is available it must be baselined as a new reference. Project teams need to be informed and re-aligned to the plan changes. Changing deadlines may impact the personal plans of individual project team members, and this needs to be examined and managed as a potential risk, the risk being that critical team members may choose to leave the project earlier than is convenient for the revised schedule.

Resume project and complete

Once the project has been re-planned and all stakeholders are on board, the project may resume. Needless to say the lessons learned from the past delays must remain a guiding influence and a basis for extra tight management until the revised completion deadline is successfully reached.


If you’ve been in one or more large or enterprise software projects that have delayed, you’re definitely not in a minority. Historic statistics on large projects show that a large percentage of projects are either delayed or completely fail. The reasons for this vary, of course, but there’s a difference between delay and outright failure. While it may or may not be possible to rescue a failed or failing project, there are a number of steps that can be taken to rescue and progress a project that is delayed, but not completely failed. This is where decisive project management skills come in along with clarity of thought and firmness in the face of distracting noises and despondency among stakeholders.

5 Steps to Rescuing a Delayed Project - Image 1

Rescuing a delayed project involves a logical sequence of steps.

Take stock of the delay and its cause

This is probably the most important step. Usually there will be just one ultimate root cause for delay, but chances are that there may be more than one. Whatever the case is, it is important to be honest and acknowledge each cause. Delays could occur for a number of reasons ranging from poor leadership and project management to incorrect comprehension of key facts by either the business or project teams or both, and other factors like inadequate skills, delays due to rework, late receipt of external inputs or decisions, poor project planning, underestimation of effort or timelines, and so on. It is important to correctly identify the main issue so that a solution is found for the correct cause of delay.

Evaluate remedial options

In many cases, I’ve seen a knee jerk reaction to resolving project delay in the form of throwing additional people at it. This is not necessarily the best thing to do unless it has been found that underestimation of effort is the cause of delay and there is enough time left provided more people are available. Sometimes the solution lies in re-evaluating scope, or technology choices or methodology, none of which may be pleasant exercises from a social point of view. It may lie in having fresh discussions amongst stakeholders to more clearly understand expectations and what is slowing things down. Sometimes the problem is that the right expertise is not available in-house, which means that external help should be sought. Sometimes the problem is one of leadership, in which case the most drastic solution would be to change the leader, or to buffer the leadership with additional support from a higher or lateral level, depending on the context. Sometimes the problem is that critical dependencies are either not understood or not recognized, in which case they need to be highlighted to the right stakeholders. And sometimes, the solution is to just accept that the project is irretrievable for whatever reason, and further losses must be cut by just shutting it down.

Re-plan remaining work

Once a consensus has been obtained on the remedial measures, an analysis must be done of the work in progress and a revised plan and estimate must be done afresh of the remaining work to be done. Chances are that the project must be re-planned due to the selection of a new strategy for its completion. If deadlines cannot be changed, perhaps the project scope that can be delivered within those deadlines has to be reworked, and the project has to be delivered in phases. Re-planning work may call for additional budget as well, and so this must also factored and approved. If it is not available, the previous step may need to be revisited to evaluate other options again. In general, all aspects of the project plan must be revisited and revalidated.

Re-allocate resources

Once the revised plan is available it must be baselined as a new reference. Project teams need to be informed and re-aligned to the plan changes. Changing deadlines may impact the personal plans of individual project team members, and this needs to be examined and managed as a potential risk, the risk being that critical team members may choose to leave the project earlier than is convenient for the revised schedule.

Resume project and complete

Once the project has been re-planned and all stakeholders are on board, the project may resume. Needless to say the lessons learned from the past delays must remain a guiding influence and a basis for extra tight management until the revised completion deadline is successfully reached.

This blog is listed under Project & Service Management Community

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