“Smoke Jumping” Into an In-Flight Project


When most people here the term, they think of brave men and women who hurtle themselves out of aircraft, loaded with gear, ready to battle a raging forest fire when they hit the ground. These smokejumpers have a very difficult and dangerous job.

There is another, less dangerous, smokejumper; the project manager who takes over an in-flight project. These leaders are brought into projects that are in progress, and most often, in distress (sometimes severely). For a multitude of reasons, the project is off track and the previous project manager has either quit or been pulled. In any case, you’ve been told to load up and “smoke jump” into this project ASAP.

I’ve learned from experience there are certain steps you should take when jumping into this project fire. Below are the steps I use. Note I put them in order of how I jump in, and there will always be times to rearrange as necessary. My biggest recommendation is no matter what, always make re-planning LAST. Understand the project’s current state and some of the history. Knowing that will make re-planning more effective.

Review the project charter. OK, let’s start by assuming the project has a charter. If it doesn’t, you have good idea why the project went off the rails in the first place. Read this before any other documents. The project charter will give you an idea of the project’s goals and objectives, as well as any other information provided. Read it carefully and note questions that can be asked later to the different stakeholder groups.

Review the last 2-4 status reports. If the project’s in trouble, you’ll probably be reading “watermelon” status reports. They’re green on the outside, but red on the inside. Understand what people were hearing and reading from these reports. Again, you’ll probably have some questions when talking with others later.

Analyze available project documents and KPI’s. These could be anything from the project schedule, risk and issues log, budget, communication plan, requirements, development and testing percent complete, and anything else available. Sometimes this can be a library of information, whereas other project’s documentation will be next to nothing (I’m used to seeing next to nothing). Review to the level of detail you think is necessary to get a feel for what had been taking place on the project.

Meetings & interviews with the project sponsor and key stakeholders. Want to know why a project was selected in the first place? Need to learn more about a project’s specifics? Go direct to the source! The sponsor and/or key stakeholders understand strategic alignment, what benefits the project provides to the company, and issues or hang-ups they’ve seen with progress thus far. Try not to let this turn into a “rip on this person or this team” conversation.

Meet the team. Get ready for some bitchin’! I’ve never taken over an in-flight project where the team didn’t throw someone under the bus, run them over, then hit reverse and do it again. There will be blame. But there will also be good information. It can be challenging, but try to direct the conversation to project issues, not personnel complaints. Find out about how the project was kicked off and roles/responsibilities of the team members. Is everyone clear on the schedule and how their contributions impact success? Lots of questions can get answered with this group. If it’s a large team, meet with a small subset or break meetings into functional groups.

1:1 with the previous project manager. That is, if they’re still around! It’s rare and I only had it happen once. Ask them about the history of the project and what was coming up next. Get insight into the team, stakeholders, vendors, and anything else that may be relevant. Stay humble and don’t blame them for anything that’s happened in the past.

Re-plan the project. This is my recommended last step after you understand what has been taking place up until now. Gather the team, including the sponsor and stakeholders, understand current state, and set realistic goals and timelines. Sometimes an end date is already set due to a business need or compliance requirement, which the team must react to. Others, the delivery date has some flexibility. Make it a formal re-kickoff and remind everyone of what was learned in the past, but focus on delivering in the future!

Carry On! Once you’re done re-planning, it’s time to carry on like any other project. But in this instance, you have some good lessons learned prior to your smoke jumping in so the same issues and mistakes don’t pop up again!

Project smokejumpers. It’s not easy to jump in and take over leadership of an in-flight project. But, through information gathering, interviews, and solid re-planning, you can help get the project under control and back on track!

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