how to lead a project when you come in mid-stream

If you’re a new manager or team lead, you might find yourself charged with leading work that’s already well in progress. How do you jump in and learn what you need to know in order to effectively drive it forward?

Here are three keys to successfully leading a project when you come in mid-stream.

1. Make sure that you’re clear on final outcomes. Rather than getting bogged down in process, focus first on what the project’s outcomes should be. Are you clear on what success would look like? Does everyone on your team have the same vision for a successful outcome? If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” focus there first.

From there, you can look at whether the project plan that’s in place looks like it will lead to those outcomes.

2. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to sit down with the people playing key roles on the project and ask questions. No one is expecting you to come in knowing all the answers, and it’s not a sign of weakness to lean on team members to bring you up to speed. (In fact, what would be a sign of weakness is jumping in and trying to lead the work without first getting really familiar with the full landscape.)

In addition to project-specific questions that you’ll likely have as you look over the project plan, you’ll also want to know:

  • Are we on track to meet the deadlines associated with the project? Are we on track to meet the goal of the project itself? How do we know?
  • Have we done similar work before? If so, what went well? What could have gone better?
  • Who will need to buy into the project and our approach? Have they already been consulted? At what stage do others need to sign off, if relevant?
  • What might go wrong? What’s in place to guard against that?
  • What are the most pressing current needs of the work, and how can we address them?
  • What are the most pressing needs likely to be in a week/month/three months, and how can we address them?

3. Make suggestions if you have them, but don’t feel obligated to put your stamp on the work. Sometimes when a manager or team lead comes into a project midway through, they feel obligated to prove themselves by reshaping the work, even when doing so won’t improve it. Resist this urge if you have it. The most effective leads don’t mess with things that are working well, and teams can generally see right through this behavior anyway. You’ll earn credibility with your team if you’re secure enough not to remake the project just to establish your authority.

To be clear, you should of course make suggestions if – after doing the steps above – you have input that you genuinely think will strengthen the work. But if your newly inherited team already has things running smoothly, it can be a credit to you if you simply help them continue what they’re already doing.

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. PizzaSquared*

    The challenge I’m currently facing is not only coming in mid-stream, but coming in near the end, and the thing is so far off track I’m not sure how to correct it. Not fun.

    1. A Jane*

      Has there been “a come to reality moment” yet with the stakeholders? Lay out where the project stands in reality and ask for project guidance.

    2. Monika*

      What A Jane said…
      With a proper documentation and all important stakeholders aware of the problems your behind is covered.
      Sometimes the best and cheapest solution is to end the project and to start all over.

    3. Ann O'Nemity*

      I’ve found it helpful to meet with team, client, vendor, etc and say something like, “I’ve just been assigned to this project and my goal is to get this finished as quickly and cleanly as possible. From what I understand, here’s where we are. And here’s the final deliverables we need to meet. What can I do to move us forward?”

      And then just sit back and listen. 99% of the time, folks will not blame me for past mistakes and will instead focus on what needs to happen to finish the project as soon as possible.

  2. MohamedMohamoud*

    Informing the key stakeholders is crucial!

    I would also try to understand what I can do to recover the project and get it back on track. I would then suggest this to the stakeholders. Also, if you are in touch with people that were on the project from the beginning use them to get up to speed quicker. Do not be afraid of looking like a fool… Read all the important documents that relate to the project and prepare yourself for long hours! I would prioritise like this:
    A. Good overview of the project
    B. Understand my role and the stakeholder expectations (deadlines, milestones, financial figures, specific tasks to complete)
    C. Get to know:
    The team members and their roles
    the product or service that we provide

    C. Pitfalls and serious issues on the horizon, options for mitigation. Courageously express these, showing that you are thinking of the mitigation too, not just spotting problems (‘complaining’ in other words)

    On a well-being note, from a physical and emotional perspective: Eat well, rest well (don’t think about work in your bed), take regular breaks during work and talk to someone supportive.

    I am pretty sure this is too late for the original poster, but I hope this is useful to someone!

    Best of luck!

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