I recently inherited three new projects—yes, three—from a colleague who was moving onto another opportunity. When you inherit something midstream and need to get up to speed quickly, it can be challenging to ascertain what you need to do first. What’s worth learning (and doing) immediately? What can wait? Here are some things PMs should consider when taking the reins on a new project opportunity:
Get to know your stakeholders. Project management is mostly people management. So, the first thing I’d recommend doing when inheriting a new project is to figure out what is going on with the people. Who is the project sponsor? What are their likes and dislikes? What is their preferred working style? Which stakeholders are challenging to work with? What approaches does the current PM use to communicate with these stakeholders? Once you get a feel for the customer, then seek to understand the team. Who is working the job? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What is their projected availability going forward? You can always read project documentation later on, but if you have an hour with the current PM before the transition, it’s best to use that time to collect as many intangibles as you can.
identify immediate next steps. Once the PM has taken the time to give you the lay of the land when it comes to the stakeholders, make sure they forward you a copy of the most recent status report and let you know the next actions you need to take. If you haven’t yet reviewed the project artifacts, their to do’s won’t make a lot of sense to you right now, but they will eventually. Jot down as many details as you can gather about what to do and by when. You’ll thank yourself later on.
Meet with your team. Once you chat with the PM and identify action items, then take time to introduce yourself to the team, preferably in person and preferably one-on-one. This initial conversation should focus on getting to know each other as people. Keep shop talk to a minimum, if you can. A possible agenda for this meeting could include:
Background / personal interests
Preferred working style
Career aspirations and how that translates into their preferred role on this project
Ideas for improvement. (I use this opportunity to explain to staff that they are the experts—not me—and I’m expecting them to tell me if some aspect of the project could be handled better. I find I receive a lot of suggestions when I make this request. Staff have no concerns about offending me since I’m an outsider to the current process.)
Analyze the budget. Once you have a feel for your customer and your team, I like to get a feel for the numbers. If the customer likes to engage a lot of pricey subject matter experts, but doesn’t like to spend money, then that is a conversation I’ll want to have early on—and I don’t want to have it until I’m familiar with the project constraints. Doing some number crunching helps you validate the current state of the financials and informs your staffing plan for the remainder of the engagement.
Familiarize yourself with contract documents. Review the scope of work and any contractual requirements and assess compliance with those requirements. If something is not happening, why not? Does it matter? If it does matter and it hasn’t been happening, create a remediation plan and vet it with your program manager or other supervisor. Engage with others for guidance, as needed, and make sure you keep people informed of any potential risks you see so that they don’t develop into something more substantial on your watch.
Make a schedule. Once I’ve reviewed the scope, I’ll put together a project schedule for the entire engagement (using deliverable dates, if provided.) I’ll then baseline the schedule, status when things were actually completed to see the differences between estimates and actuals, and use that data plus the staffing data to create a plan for the rest of the project. Until I get that thing in Microsoft Project, I can’t sleep at night. But that may just be me :)
Call the customer. Once I’ve taken the reins from the old PM (so pre-step 1), I’ll ask them to send an email introducing me to the customer (you shouldn’t need to make this request, but just in case.) I’ll reply back to express my enthusiasm for the work and request that we chat in a few days to give me the opportunity to get up to speed. Scheduling 2-3 days hence should buy you time to complete steps 1-6. You’ll get the download on the customer, meet your team, run the numbers, review the legalese, and draw up your plan of attack. By the time you talk with the client, you’ll be better positioned to address any additional landmines they might throw your way.
Infuse creativity into the current mode of operations. Privately pledge to do 1-2 things differently than the old PM. Take suggestions from the team to tweak an internal process. Ask the customer for feedback on the previous PM to assess the health of the current relationship. Then, figure out other areas in which the team can provide support. As you grow the relationship with the client, you’ll be able to validate those initial ideas for feasibility and make suggestions for improvement, as appropriate.