Rescuing Failing Projects

There’s a show on TV that I really like – it’s called “The Profit” and it features a guy named Marcus Lemonis who goes out and turns around failing businesses. It comes on right after “Shark Tank” which is another popular show – the two shows are similar. The difference is that Shark Tank is primarily about entrepreneur’s who need help in the startup phase of getting a business off the ground where “The Profit” is about turning around established businesses that are failing because of poor business management.

The star of the show is a billionaire named Marcus Lemonis. I think his approach is very unique and is very similar to the approach I try to use in turning around failing projects:

  • Marcus recognizes that there are systemic factors that make a business successful and if those systemic factors are not well-designed and aligned with the objectives of the business, the business is going to have lots of difficulty succeeding no matter how hard people try to make it work. His view of the systemic success factors for a business are:
    • People
    • Process
    • Product
  • When Marcus goes in to turn around a failing business, he usually buys a controlling interest in the business. He tells the people in the business something like “I’m not here as a consultant, I’m here to turn this business around and make money from it”. Sometimes the existing business owners aren’t happy with giving up a controlling interest in their business but he knows that without a controlling interest in the business, he will have a difficult time having the influence he needs to turn the business around.
  • The show has a broad variety of episodes in different situations with different kinds of businesses and it is very interesting to watch the dynamics of the people involved – sometimes Marcus gets into very heated arguments with the existing owners of the business because they are so set in their ways of how they’ve run the business for so long and resist making a change. There are actually one or two shows where he has walked away from a failing business and he wasn’t able to turn it around. Generally, in those situations the existing owners of the business resisted what he wanted to do to turn the business around.

I feel like “the Marcus Lemonis of project management” because I have been called upon to help save a number of failing projects and I have a similar approach for rescuing failing projects – the three systemic factors that I look at are:

  • People – Having the right people on the project where the resources are well trained in the process and technology and a team that is cohesive, cross-functional, empowered, and self-organizing
  • Process – Having the right methodology in place that is well designed and appropriate to the nature of the project and is also well integrated with the client for the project so that the client is fully engaged collaboratively in the process in a spirit of partnership and trust
  • Tools – Having the right tools in place to support the process and people is extremely important to maximize the efficiency of the people and process especially in cases that involve distributed teams that are not collocated and very fast-paced demanding projects

My experience is that many times when a project is failing, people just push harder to make it work by putting pressure on people to work harder and neglect to address these systemic factors that are at the core of making any project successful. The approach I use is based on the notion that if these three factors are addressed and are well-designed, the project has a much higher probability of success and people shouldn’t have to work so hard to make it successful. It’s a case of working smarter rather than just working harder.

This is a good illustration of how an Agile Project Manager is very different from that of a traditional Project Manager. A traditional Project Manager is noted for “ram-rodding” projects and sometimes over-controlling and pushing hard on people to make it successful. That is what is frequently known as a “Death March” project. An Agile Project Management approach is to put in place the right people, process, and tools and not micro-manage the effort any more than necessary to make it successful.

“The Profit” is on CNBC right after Shark Tank; however the episodes are already over for this season and you would have to watch a previously recorded episode to see it at this point. I highly recommend it – it’s one of my favorite shows on TV. You can read more about it here if you’re interested:

The Profit Show