The project was struggling – over budget and behind schedule. It was a critical subproject of a larger program and delivery was critical. Senior leadership decided it was time to change the project manager, and I was brought in to lead a turnaround effort. As I was digging into the details of the project, I came to the conclusion that my predecessor wasn’t a bad project manager (thankfully he was just transferred and not let go). The project needed a different leader with a different style and set of skills. If you have projects in your portfolio that are struggling or the team is burnt out, here are some reasons it may be good to change the project manager:
Infuse the team with energy. If the team is burnt out, it becomes difficult to work in the same environment day after day, facing struggles. When projects aren’t executing as planned, it’s not uncommon for morale to decrease as the project team blames themselves. Bringing in a new project manager can help the team rally. Changing something in the team’s environment can be invigorating.
Bring a new perspective. Changing project managers can bring a new perspective in the project. As the project manager gets up to speed, they have the opportunity to ask questions and review project materials that can result in uncovering inefficiencies, project waste, or hidden issues. Reviewing the project from a fresh perspective allows the new project manager to approach it in a different way that could be more effective.
Align skills. In my story above, as I assessed the state of the project I realized that part of the reason the project was off-track was due to the project manager being so technically oriented. It was a complex project and the project manager spent excessive time trying to solve the technical issues instead of managing the project. When I took over the project, I facilitated issue resolution instead of trying to solve issues myself. I had more time to focus on other parts of the project. I was able to keep my head up and prevent future issues instead of burying by head in current issues. Aligning project teams with the right project manager can be an accelerator. To do this effectively, it’s important to understand the team culture, the work the team is delivering, and the leadership style of the project manager.
Uncover bad habits. Every project team has a bad habit; some are insignificant but some can adversely impact project success. I was on another turnaround project where the IT team was operating smoothly but there were no processes to connect IT to the business besides a weekly team meeting. IT had a habit of “throwing things over the fence” to the business and the business had a habit of being slow to roll out the products. When I joined the project, we established processes that allowed more effective handoffs. This project team needed a lot of structure to be effective. Bringing in someone new, with a different style, can bring these habits to life, and if you’ve done the proper alignment from the prior point, then your new project manager will be the right person to instill project practices to change those habits.
Project reputation. Sometimes projects drag on and seem to make very little progress. The project can start getting a reputation of failing or not executing effectively. When this happen, people around the organization, outside the project team, start questioning the people on the project, or they talk negatively about the project, “How much more money do they need? They’ve already sucked up millions.” “Why can’t that team hit any of it’s milestones?” “When is leadership going to do something?” This type of talk makes morale on the project go down further and the team’s effectiveness further decreases. Changing the project manager can give the organization the impression that leadership is taking action and getting involved in the project, which can change the project’s reputation.
Changing out a project manager should be done with care. Messaging and change management are critical. Ensure the project manager being removed is on board and understands what’s in it for them. Clearly communicate to the entire team that the change isn’t a punishment to the project manager or a “demotion.” The focus should be on the opportunities that are being provided to the new project manager and the former one. Changing project managers can revitalize the project but not if it’s executed without carefully communicating the right messages around the change.
Jana Axline is Chief Project Officer at Axline Solutions and author of Becoming You. Through her leadership musings she inspires audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Axline Solutions.