Before the Project Becomes Yours...

Ever "inherit" a project? Ever inherit one where the expectations seem unrealistic? Or just plain crazy?

Yeah, I've had a few of those, too.

So what do you do? Your boss labels the project an "opportunity" for you, a chance to show your stuff? It's a vote of confidence. Or is it? Could you be a scapegoat being positioned to take the blame for someone else's brain fart?

Perhaps, while the expectations may look high, you agree it's a noble endeavor -- noble for the company, that is.

But is it good for you?

Maybe. But maybe not. It all depends on how you handle things. And how you handle things never matters more than before you first take the reins.

What are the choices?

You could dive right in and start problem solving -- that's probably your natural reaction. It certainly was mine. You rationalize that there's no time to waste, or that you can learn on the fly by doing, digging, and reacting.

You could review project status -- testing the level of available resources against the targets you will measured on. You can also check to make sure the right people are deployed in the right roles. You could formulate a new pathway to a successful project conclusion. All of these actions are useful steps, but not where I recommend you start.

Before the project becomes yours, you should review the justification. Review the original project documents. Carefully check over the write-ups, the financial analysis, and all the presentations -- especially any given to senior management or the board of directors. Test and evaluate the underlying assumptions. There is no more important place to start. Why? Because I've observed that the vast majority of projects are either already destined for success or failure before they've even begun.  Expectations are everything, and like it or not, you're performance is likely to be measured against the already existing expectations no matter how easy to achieve, or how unrealistic.

Someone in senior management wants to do something (for example: open a new plant, or perhaps close an old one). Do you think they waited for a thorough analysis to support their intuition on the desired project? Most don't. And even if they do, they, or at least their staffs, already know what the "right" answer is. They often bend and twist the analysis to support their preconceived ideas. I've seen it happen over and over again. The number of times I've seen objective analysis drive the decision (without any pre-existing "intuition") could be counted on two hands.

If you're inheriting the project, it probably comes complete with plenty of assumptions -- some that aren't particularly realistic or well founded. If you don't raise the red flag early and often, they become your assumptions. You will own them, just like whomever you are relieving.
Test every assumption, especially the ones that look risky. Bring up your concerns with bosses at every opportunity. Call foul if you can. Better to say -- "This project is never going to pay off" on day two, rather then being assessed as a failure on day two hundred when you couldn't work a miracle.
Of course, you have to play politics as you do this. If you just inherited your boss'es pet project, and he drove all those crazy assumptions, your hands will be (at least partially) tied. But do what you can to protect yourself and your reputation from the faulty assignment.
And remember -- silence is viewed as agreement. Always.

My heroine in INCENTIVIZE faced a similar situation when she audited Matrix Corporation's East African mining operations.  In that case, her only mistake was to raise her concerns with the wrong manager -- the site President.  The results were disasterous.  You can check out INCENTIVIZE further by clicking on this link.