Four Steps To Recovering Run Away Projects

You don’t have to manage projects for long before you encounter situations where expectations no longer match reality.  Whether you’re dealing with scope creep, budget overruns or missed deadlines, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with a project that’s gotten out of bounds.  IT projects are notorious offenders, partly because they involve so much variance.  It seems no two are the same.  Even those that appear similar on the surface inevitably have some significant differences.  So what do you do when you realize your project has gotten off track?

Of course it’s best to address project issues before they get out of hand so let’s look at a few early warning signs your project is heading for trouble.  Using the classic triple constraints of budget, schedule, and scope it becomes easier to identify problems early.  If you’ve projected spending over time it is easy to determine how much of your project budget should remain at any point.  Similarly, a good schedule with intermediate milestones will serve as an early warning when dates begin to slip.  As for scope, there’s really no substitute for a work breakdown structure or a well written scope statement.  Either of those artifacts can be used to validate the scope of the project and identify items that were not part of the original plan.  However as the name scope creep implies we usually get into trouble not on one particularly large item but on a series of small, seemingly harmless additions to the project.  Judicious management of changes coupled with a sound change management plan is the only way to avoid scope creep.

Once you’ve identified a serious problem, whether its budget, scope or schedule, you can take the following steps to get it back on track.

  1. Define the problem in concrete terms
  2. Develop a recovery plan
  3. Get back to the basics
  4. Keep key stakeholders informed


Let’s further examine these steps.

1. Define The Problem In Concrete Terms

You must be able to explain the problem before you can begin formulating a recovery plan.  If your schedule is slipping, why?  If you are projecting budget overruns are they due to an unexpected one-time expense or are they going to continue?  If scope is expanding, what’s the cause?

Which problem would you rather attempt to solve?

At the current rate of spending our project will finish 25% over budget because one of the vendor’s rates increased in the middle of the project.


We are going to come in over budget.

Whenever you find a triple constraint issue, think through the impacts to the other constraints.  If you’re going over budget will that affect the scope you can deliver?  Will it impact delivery dates?

2. Develop A Recovery  Plan

Your recovery plan must address the root cause of the issue.  If you’re suffering from unavoidable delays the recovery plan may include a phased delivery which allows customers to realize incremental value.  Try to devise multiple approaches to addressing the problem.  Executives like options so lay out the pros and cons of two or three solutions.  Your recovery plan should include changes to the current approach aimed at avoiding or mitigating the root cause of the initial problem.  It should also identify risks associated with the new approach and provide the ability to monitor progress through interim deliverables.

3. Get Back To The Basics

When a project runs off course sometimes focus on the fundamentals has been dropped.  There are numerous causes for such failures and even experienced project managers can fall prey to them.  As you execute your recovery plan stay alert to signs of scope creep.  Manage your schedule tightly by establishing frequent, interim deliverables with deadlines and keep your budget under control.  If you don’t have a documented list of issues and action items, consider putting one together and reviewing it regularly.  These simple tools can often help prevent little problems from becoming big ones.

4. Keep Key Stakeholders Informed

Throughout your effort to recover a flagging project keep your key stakeholders informed.  Report progress on a regular and frequent basis.  Most people are reasonable and much more understanding about issues when they’ve been informed about them early on.  They may also be able to help identify solutions to problems which may not be obvious to the project team.  Hold regular status updates in a face-to-face setting if possible.


Even the best management teams will run into obstacles on their projects.  Catching problems early can prevent issues from impacting on-time, on-budget delivery but you can never over estimate the unexpected.  If one of your projects takes a turn for the worst remember to define the problem in concrete terms, develop a recovery plan, get back to project management basics, and keep your stakeholders informed.