Delivery | Project and Program Management

Bringing problem projects back on track

Antoinette Kesha
on November 08, 2023
Case study: A program in trouble

“Program X”, a high-profile digital initiative within a large company, faced significant challenges. Despite running for 18 months, minimal progress had been made, causing growing frustration among internal stakeholders. Complex governance, multiple sponsors, and unclear funding added to the confusion. The program lacked a defined scope, clear roles, and a roadmap, leading to a lack of direction for the existing team.

Additionally, strained relationships and personality conflicts within the program team and governance further hindered progress, eroding trust and causing tension. As a result, the program had acquired a negative reputation and faced an impending hard deadline with no tangible progress.

Recognising the need for change, senior leaders and the Enterprise Program Management Office (PMO) decided to bring in a new program manager to address these issues.

Find out what key steps the program manager did to get this problem project back on track:


So what next?

Like the case study example, programs and projects are notorious for getting into trouble.

The effects can be significant, for example: delay or failure to deliver, lack of buy-in, burning through time and money, wasted investment due to an inability to deliver or achieve the outcomes, reputational damage, stressed people, and a lasting lack of confidence in the people and future projects.

Taking over a problem project is especially challenging.

  • It can seem chaotic
  • Relationships can be fractured
  • A lack of trust exists and demand is high.

If you’re bought into a project in trouble or are involved in one that is wobbly or going off the rails, here are some of things we’ve learned along the way that work consistently to bring it back on track.

But first remember to seek support to help you ‘reset’ the project. You’ll need the support of your team (or at least some of them), and ideally your Sponsor and/or PMO.

There are 5 proven ways to bring your problem project back on track

Avoid expending energy and investment in the wrong areas by focusing on these five tips:

  1. Hit the ground running – assess and deal with priority people issues and pain points
  2. Lead by example, create a sense of team and always put people first
  3. Communicate, build excellent relationships and engage at all levels
  4. Connect people to the Vision and Outcomes
  5. Do the basics and facilitate ways of working upfront

All of these top 5 tips have been lived with in most cases a better than expected outcome achieved.



Let’s explore...

Tip 1: Hit the ground running – assess and deal with priority people issues and pain points

Basically we need to ‘Do something. Now!’.  There’s a need to achieve a whole lot of things concurrently. Besides gaining an understanding of where things are at and addressing key issues, there are typically significant people challenges. Team members can be frustrated, stressed, feel under pressure, be apprehensive and may also just not be getting along. Being new on a project already changes the dynamic, so it’s a great opportunity to leverage this time of change to transform an environment. 

Initially form a small comms plan and who needs to know what and when on the change in project leadership.  Let the team and stakeholders know about any immediate changes and that you’ll spend a bit of time coming up to speed, and likely some more changes will be coming.   If anything needs to continue in the interim, support it to continue.  Ideally do this with visible support from your Sponsor or senior stakeholders.  It indicates a clear handover of authority.

Here’s a guide to the steps you can take in the first instance.

Step One:  Assess the situation and gain intel through:

  • The people bringing you in, gather as much background as you can as quickly as you can
  • The team, through 1:1’s or where appropriate small group catch-ups
  • Project governance – Sponsor and Business Owners
  • Key stakeholders
  • Running a retrospective for learning
  • Reviewing key documentation and visual boards

Example starter questions to ask

  • How are things going? 
  • How are you going? 
  • Where do you think we should direct our efforts right now? What might we need for that (e.g. people, resources)?
  • How can I help?
  • Are you keen to help too? 

Explore any concern or support areas raised.

You can also use the 5 Whys to get to the root of the problem quickly.

Step Two: Make recommendations and socialise to seek agreement

Consider options where you can and which of those you recommend, being clear on the why.  Outline any costs (budget changes), time, people changes and resource needs. Seek agreement.  Refresh the comms plan, to ensure you socialise with people who need to know.

Share the revised approach with the team, ideally face to face.

Step Three: Make the change. ACTION!


Tip 2: Lead by example, create a sense of team and always put people first

It is all about culture and people. As project leaders, we need to lead the project, while simultaneously being an integrated member of the team. Always put people first, no matter what challenges are being faced. We have a responsibility to look after the health, safety and wellness of those in our care and our team are in our care. The team is the best asset the project has, so we need to treat them with the respect they deserve in order for that respect to be returned. 

How do we generate a great team culture or in this case, turn around a less than desirable one? Start by living the culture you want to see and live it consistently. Mahatma Gandhi said “We must become the change we want to see.” If you want a positive culture, one that supports the people in it and encourages them to support those around them, then be that person. Be visible; be supportive; be genuine. 

Project work has an element of stress, the constraints and people complexity alone create challenges. How we behave affects those around us and as leaders we need to be mindful that we have a wider influence and impact. People thrive in positive environments, whereas negative environments demand unnecessary focus and create risk as we divert energy to deal with that impact. It’s much more productive and healthy to put this effort into performing and delivery.

  • Trust the team and trust your experts. We can’t be experts in everything we do and sometimes we need to make a judgement call or rely on our intuition, when there simply isn’t enough information or time to get it. If you’re uncomfortable or uncertain about something, delve further. It’s okay to let people know that you need help to understand a little more what is being meant. 
  • Create a safe environment for the team to raise issues, share views, wins and improvements. As a team, it is fine to have different perspectives, in fact it’s good when the discussion is constructive and if need be people are prepared to compromise. This often leads to a better outcome following a robust discussion. When high levels of trust exist, people are more willing to trust in others’ views. 
  • As servant leaders we lead with others in mind: and look to understand and empathise with others.  We listen and as integrated team members, we recognise that the team is more important than self. Share power and wins, it empowers the team and in this is strength. 
  • Grow capability: help to develop others, by coaching and mentoring, encouraging and leading. Others will follow this lead.  This enables team members to develop their own careers. It allows team members to also coach and share their knowledge with others, meaning we can build capability wider than within our immediate team. It is something we can all achieve together. 

We best achieve through the cooperation and collaboration of the team and stakeholders. 

Tip 3: Communicate, build excellent relationships and engage at all levels

Building relationships is important anytime both personally and professionally. Be an ambassador and encourage the team to be ambassadors. Build relationships across all levels, internally and externally as needed. Create visibility and adapt style to suit the audience.  

Effective communication is a critical success factor. Communication is a major focus, along with high levels of engagement. While it takes time, it provides much needed transparency, gains buy-in and addresses areas of concern. Ensure workshops are well facilitated and encourage two-way conversations. Seek feedback, which enables a more informed decision to be made. 

  • Broker the political path: organisations are political, and we often have to influence without the authority.  We need to protect the team from any politics and other distractions, which enables the team to get on and deliver. With our moral responsibility for the wellness of the team, if there are any less than desirable behaviours going on, then we need to address them on behalf of the team. 
  • Effort into communications and relationships is ongoing and essential.  It is important to plan, being aware of the audience, the channel and the message and who is best to deliver the message. Using a Stakeholder Engagement Plan.  This plan is ‘ALWAYS ON’. Frequent planning and tracking, and preparing for every engagement, helps progress messages. The communications and engagement go a long way towards building trust in the community and can help turn the reputation of a project around. 
  • Grow Governance capability: ensure governance groups are clear on their role and the decision making process, that won’t risk decisions being delayed.
  • Leverage partner relationships: Strategic partner relationships must be positive, open and collaborative. Partners are an extension of the team; this is something we want to create as part of establishing the relationship, ideally as part of the tendering process.  We are partners in each other’s success and together achieve more, so it’s important to form excellent working relationships early.  Check out our “Creating and Growing True Strategic Partnerships’ article for more tips.

Tip 4: Connect people to the Vision and Outcomes

A compelling vision statement provides clarity as to where we’re heading and can be a great motivator. If one doesn’t exist, establish a vision or even better work with decision makers and the team to create it. 

Motivate people by reinforcing the vision for the team and stakeholders at every opportunity.  It helps align the team and the organisation to what is needing to be achieved. Share the importance of what the team are doing for the customer, the business and ideally for their own personal development (link back to what motivates them if you can). 

Be clear on the expected outcomes and create OKRs if there aren’t already.  Socialise consistently.

Bring into individuals’ goals and objectives where possible, being able to link the work the team is doing to vision and strategy provides the team with a clear path ahead and a shared goal. People generally want to contribute in a significant and meaningful way. By bringing into individual goals, means we can celebrate and attribute the great work the team are doing.


Tip 5: Do the basics and facilitate ways of working upfront

As project professionals we still need to do the basics around project management well: plan, manage scope, time, quality, risks and issues, people, resources and the budget. We need to make sure we’re still tracking towards the outcomes and desired goals to deliver value.

  • Create a living roadmap: Develop a roadmap and as you share it, let people know it is living. Understand where you’re heading and articulate that to others. Make it visible and transparent.  It’s not always easy, but lift yourself up and see the bigger picture. Think in terms of horizons – the immediate week/sprint ahead, one month, three months, six months, one year, two years and so on. You won’t know exactly how these will look, but if you’re thinking ahead, it will help you to stay future-focused.
  • Create a regular rhythm of connection and visibility with Sponsors, Business Owners, partners, stakeholders and team. As a team define how you’re going to operate (including with external partners). Create a living social contract.  Create visibility of the work (through boards). Ensure that induction of team members is planned and done well.  Make sure everyone understands their role and responsibilities and have clarity as to the priorities. Plan for every meeting, be organised. 
  • Leaders constantly need to prioritise.  Let the team know that they are the priority. How you interact with people will convey that they are important. 
  • Try to get early wins to keep momentum going. Being able to demonstrate early success by launching a first deliverable in the timescale provides the ability to celebrate success and heightens confidence in what has been set out to achieve. Continue to obtain wins – by doing what you say you will do as a team.  Use regular showcases to give visibility, gather feedback and celebrate the great work! 
  • We’re always learning: and we want to cultivate that in how we work. Working agile, using the practice of ‘inspect and adapt’, which means we are always looking to improve. We can cultivate a culture of continuous improvement and high quality. Retrospectives are powerful and great learning tools and support asking regularly what went well and what can we improve upon to continually make things better. Teams being self-organising in how they operate. 
  • MVP: thinking in terms of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). What is the minimum we can deliver that will be of value? Then look to build on this. 

In one program, it allowed us to recognise early that a change in our approach was needed. We brainstormed to identify the causes and options to address with our partner and then worked as a team to adapt. This approach, the culture and the team adoption of change contributed to the team becoming a high performing team in 3 sprints.  In fact the next day, looking around the incredible amount of collaboration in progress, I told the team I was looking at a high performing team, with everyone aligned on the outcome.  Quite the turnaround from what I’d walked into. That program was quietly seen as a ‘problem child’ and became the ‘star program’.

In summary...


  • It is important to do what you say you’re going to do and repeat messages as many times as you need to. 
  • Start to understand the team and if you have the opportunity, understand what motivates individuals within the team. Investing time in people is valuable.
  • Be visible, floor walk and be genuine in your interest of how the team is going. 
  • Be calm and consistent in behaviour. 
  • Use the language of “we”, rather than “I”. 
  • Share positive feedback, no matter how small. 
  • Acknowledge any wins or successes.

These behaviours will help form a positive team culture. 

In addition, you can:

  • Seek confirmation from the Sponsors and Business Owners, who are always busy people, that they understand their role and can prioritise the project. 
  • Facilitate workshops (or get support to) with decision makers so you can achieve the outcomes quickly.  Delayed decisions delays projects that delays outcomes and burns money.

Sounds great in theory doesn’t it?  The good thing is it can work beautifully in practice too.  There is no simple fix, it is a whole lot of activity and hard work concurrently.  Watch those cortisone levels.  Be mindful of your personal wellness, this needs to be a temporary focus and not risk stress or burnout.  

Don’t forget to reach out for support from your team or sponsor and consider bringing in a coach or additional support to provide an external view or to assist with project leadership or team capacity. 

If you need help leading your programs and projects to a successful outcome, while building internal capability and culture, contact EPiC Delivery today.

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