How To Pull Yourself Out When Projects Are Underwater

Evaluating project plans and budget when Projects Are Underwater

Project Management Insights for Reviving Struggling Projects

Project managers have faced a number of unique challenges over the past few years. Between the COVID-19 pandemic bringing projects to an abrupt halt and delaying others, project leaders have been required to adjust to entirely remote or hybrid work environments and the expectation has been that Project Managers and sponsors continue to deliver results and effectively manage their teams.  

Today, projects have overall resumed normal operations, and many projects are ramping up simultaneously. Project Managers are required to juggle many responsibilities and now more than ever, are being pulled in many directions. The feeling that projects are underwater and you as the Project Manager are drowning is not uncommon during these unique world circumstances, and leaders are looking for strategies to implement in order to get back on track. Below, we’ll address ways to recognize when projects are underwater and steps you can take to resolve them. 

Take Stock of Tools and Resources Available  

The feeling that projects are getting off track can arise for many reasons. For higher level project sponsors who are accountable for the delivery of the project though not as involved in the daily project efforts, having a set of tools and resources to determine how the project is progressing is key.  

Taking stock of any project dashboards or spreadsheets that are available to you is a crucial first step for project sponsors to see how project progress can be monitored in real time. Though weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly project status meetings are an effective tool and strategy for monitoring project success, having project dashboards available that can be checked at any given point in time is a useful resource for project sponsors and managers. If a project is struggling and action needs to be taken to get it back on track, having a clear understanding of the tools and resources available to you and the rest of the team is a worthwhile first step and will allow you to make informed decisions.  

Address Scope Creep 

Oftentimes, no matter how much pre-planning is done, projects will face unforeseen challenges which can lead to feelings of overwhelm. When things like project schedule, budget, and quality are beginning to slip, these are clear indicators that action needs to be taken.   

Scope creep is a frequent culprit to projects getting off track, so revisiting the statement of work (SOW) and ensuring your team is sticking closely to the original objectives is beneficial. Scope creep can’t always be avoided, but having formalized documentation including change orders and time amendments of any additional project work outside the original scope is key.  

Evaluate the Project Timeline 

If a project is running over budget, this can lead to added stress and is a good indication that project resources are being over-utilized or the original project plan was under-scoped. Revisiting the project plan is a good first step, and redirecting resources accordingly is the necessary next step.  

Though projects running over budget is usually the primary concern Project Managers and stakeholders have, a project that is running under budget can be equally concerning. This can be an indicator that the project may be behind schedule and that resources are not being utilized to their fullest potential.  

If schedule becomes an issue, this can in turn contribute to budget issues down the road if go-live is delayed. What’s more, it may be an indicator that project quality may be at stake if projects are underbudget. Assessing project quality can often be a qualitative task, so coordinating with the key contributors to review expectations going forward and to comb over previously completed work to ensure accuracy are worthwhile steps to take.  

Consider Risk Management 

Project Managers and stakeholders know that mitigating risk to the schedule and budget, all while delivering on the statement of work, is their primary objective. Sometimes, unforeseen risks arise and it’s the job of the Project Manager and sponsor to make strategic decisions in order to mitigate risk and ensure the project’s success. Things like a client’s organizational structure changing, resource shifts, layoffs, and restructuring are all potential risks that exist outside of the project team’s control. How the team responds to these unforeseen circumstances can be the make-or-break moment in a project. Keeping a RAID log that encompasses all the risks, actions, issues, and decisions that are made throughout the project will help project stakeholders be more aware of risks when they arise. A root cause analysis can also help to identify the predominant cause of any issues and allow teams to respond accordingly to mitigate risks at their source. 

How Can Drowning Projects Be Revived? 

Go back to basics. Every project should have a charter, or plan in place that is meant for the Project Manager to use as a guide for their strategic approach. If you are a project sponsor or leader, the first thing you should do is revisit these scope items. Have a clear understanding of what is going wrong, and then take the appropriate action to correct the course. Let’s dive into some common things that go wrong, and how to respond, below.  

If you’ve determined that the underlying issues are a matter of schedule or scope, this is an indicator that we need to look at capacity. Capacity means examining what scope of work is left, while also looking at what calendar hours are left. Comparing these two elements will give you the capacity. As the Project Manager or sponsor, it’s now up to you to determine if your resources are going to be able to get the work done within the defined schedule. Look at capacity to understand what a project needs and what, if any, adjustments can be made.  

To recap, the steps you need to take to evaluate a struggling project are as follows: 

  1. Review current scope and estimated level of effort 
  1. Review the project schedule and resources schedule. This is your resource capacity.  
  1. Align 1 & 2. Aligning your understanding of scope and the project and resource schedule will give you insight into the opportunities for identifying areas where resources can be reallocated to different areas to fill in any project gaps. Worst case scenario, if resource reallocation isn’t able to solve your project pain-points, you may need to make decisions on cutting scope or adding resources. These will require additional approval, so be prepared to make the case to the project sponsor if more budget is needed, if adjustments to the project schedule is needed, or if cutting scope is needed 

If ultimately you need to reevaluate scope and level of effort, you may need to start implementing daily stand-up calls with your resources to assess progress and understand where pain points are. Use the guiding principles of the project charter in stand-up calls to set the tone while at the same time fostering accountability. 

If you’re having trouble identifying the specific pain points and cause of why the project is underwater, Elire recommends completing a root cause analysis or leveraging the five why’s. A root cause analysis (RCA) is the process of discovering the root causes of problems so that appropriate solutions can be identified. It’s much more effective to prevent and solve underlying issues, rather than simply treating the symptoms on an ad hoc basis. The five why’s are a tool to help determine the root cause, and is completed by repeating the question “Why?” Though not all problems have a single root cause, asking “why?” as many times as possible can help determine where projects are going awry.  

By taking a moment to pause, evaluate the circumstances, and then take the necessary steps, you’ll be able to save yourself, your teams, and your projects from the overwhelm of a project that isn’t going according to plan. 

For more project management learning, subscribe to Elire’s quarterly Project Management Newsletter here. In the meantime, view our Advisory Services page here for insight into how Elire can help your organization. 


  • Maddie Caron

    Ms. Caron serves as Elire's Marketing Specialist, specializing in content writing and digital media communications. Maddie works to deliver relevant industry updates and technical blog posts to educate and engage Elire's audience.

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