Have you ever been asked to step onto a project as a project manager in mid-stream to help out or fill in for an outgoing PM or possibly try to “save the day?” When you’re asked to jump on a new project how do you go about doing that to ensure your best chance for success? What you do, of course, may depend on why you’re being asked to take over the project … and it can be for any one of the following reasons:

  • Previous project manager lost the customer’s confidence
  • An emergency necessitated an early departure for the project manager
  • Co-management became a necessity due to changes on the project
  • Previous project manager failed to manage the team and project effectively
  • Previous project manager lacked the expertise to lead the project based on new direction

Whatever the reason, there are going to be some steps that will need to be taken to get you up to speed as quickly as possible to successfully lead the project. I’ve taken on many projects – and for most of the reasons listed above – and here’s the steps I’ve found to be necessary or most helpful to take when I’ve just acquired a new project:

Get a high-level knowledge transfer from the PMO director. The director likely assigned the project to you so they know the reason, the project status, and probably some very up to date customer feedback. Get as much info as possible from him immediately. It may not be extensive, but it will be timely. The more detailed project info will come from somewhere else, but this will be useful.

Discuss the project with the original account manager. The original account manager may have some information about the project from its inception that might never get passed on to you otherwise. Special customer information, some quirks about the project or the sales process, etc. You may or may not get anything out of this discussion, but if you do it could be valuable.

Have at least a couple of discussions with the outgoing project manager. Hold one or two detailed discussions with the exiting project manager. Ideally this would be one before and one after you get as many project deliverables, status reports and other info passed on to you as possible. Discuss, review, and discuss again.

Get as much past project documentation as possible for review. Request anything and everything that is available so far on the project. Get all status reports, status meeting notes, issues lists, risk lists, deliverables, project schedules, and budget forecasts and updates. You may only have time to review the most recent versions of each, but get everything you can because something might come up that makes reviewing a very old status report meaningful. And never assume this project manager will be available to discuss later. If they’re being removed involuntarily from the project they may not be with the company much longer.

Co-lead two weekly customer status meetings with the outgoing project manager. If it’s an abrupt transition due to customer dissatisfaction, there may not be any co-led meetings … it may be all you from now on. However, if you have a chance to transition slowly, the preference would be to do it over a couple of meetings before you completely take over. It smoothes the overall customer transition.

Have a separate call with the customer team lead or project sponsor. Hold a separate call with the customer during the transition. Do this without the outgoing project manager, if possible, because this is your chance to start taking control and building customer confidence.

Summary / call for input

Project success is never guaranteed. And you might come in to save the day and fail miserably. However, following these detailed steps to successfully take over a project can give you all the key information and discussion points you need to know what you’re walking in to. And knowing that is half the battle. Gaining … or regaining customer confidence is the rest of the battle and how smooth the transition goes can dictate if and when that will happen.

What about our readers? Have you been in this situation of needing to take over or jump on a project mid-stream? What did you do to prepare? What would you change about my list or add to it?