How to Salvage a Disaster Project

As a Project Manager, starting a brand new project from scratch is full of challenges, but at least being on board from the beginning allows you to give life to a well-organized being.

When taking over an existing project, on the other hand, it’s hard to know what to expect. Sometimes, these projects have been guided by a great PM. Other times, they’ve been bungled by a terrible PM, or even multiple PMs that have each inserted a little bit of their own style along the way.

These PM-schizophrenic projects are often the most difficult ones, full of mass confusion. But they can be salvaged.

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to pull from a recent experience where I took on a project that had gone through many PM's before me. This particular project, I knew, had the potential to be great, but needed some work.

Oh, and it happened to be a Nebo internal project. So no pressure or anything, but my “clients” were my bosses.

Any PM out there who has worked on an internal project knows that these internal ones are the hardest. We’re so focused on doing great work for our clients that it can be easy to let our own internal initiatives get de-prioritized and pushed to the back burner.

This project is still a work in progress. It’s not always a smooth ride, but it is moving forward much better nowadays. Some days it makes me want to scream from frustration, but other days it’s fun.

Here's how I was able to jump in and pull this project out of its slump, and how you might be able to do the same with your own disaster project:

Take a Moment to Prepare Yourself


The rumors floating around this project were quiet, but all spoke to one thing: no one really enjoyed working on it. Now, when you have clients in obscure industries, it may not be fun, but it's at least interesting and rewarding. But the buzz around this particular project was that it was neither rewarding nor fun.

Knowing what was waiting for me when I took over this project, I learned the first thing you need to do is have a glass of wine!

Seriously. Relax. Take a deep breath. Have a nice dinner the night before you plan on diving into things. This is probably the most important step. You need the time to collect yourself so that you don't completely lose your mind (because truly, you will).

Assess the Situation


Once you've had time to calm down and prepare yourself, the next step is to do extensive research into the project. You need to find out everything you can.

Here is a list of questions I would start with:

  • What do you know?
  • What don't you know?
  • Who are your team members?
  • Who might you go to in order to get the info you need?
  • Is there anything done, but not implemented?
  • Is there anything halfway done?
  • What tasks have/haven't been started yet?
  • What are the pain points in the process?
  • What has caused this project to be unsuccessful in the past?

Until you have the answers to these questions, you're not going to be able to effectively drive this project to success.

When I went through this process, it became apparent pretty quickly that this project was hard for people to work on because there was no real sense of structure. It had been cycled through multiple PMs over the past couple of years, which is never ideal. Some of them worked on the project for a month, other for a handful of months, but each time a new PM touched it, it became more and more disorganized. Since there was no permanent PM, it just became a  mess.

But at least now I knew what I was dealing with.

Meet with Team Members Separately


Once you’ve had time to get into the guts of the project to determine what needs to happen, but before you build out your official plan of attack, it's important to meet individually with each team member to get his or her perspective. Meetings in groups can cause people to be less likely to share problems or even just vent candidly about past/current issues. Also, there are usually a handful of voices that are louder than others, so by meeting individually, each person can feel like their voice and their suggestions are heard.

The one thing to note about these individual meetings: While it’s important for people to have the opportunity to vent, it’s just as important to keep the conversation as positive as possible. You are here to help “fix” the problems and get the ship sailing smoothly again, aren’t you? Make sure they know that is your intention, and that you need their help to make it happen.

Have Structured Check-Ins with the Team


To get a project like this organized, structure is vital. There are a number of different ways you can go about this, but for this project, I wanted to make sure I got my entire team together on a weekly basis to talk about everything. This project has a lot of moving parts that need to coordinate, and one of the issues I’d identified early on is that there wasn’t enough communication between team members of differing departments.

Weekly meetings are great, especially for complicated projects or ones that need that “push” at the beginning. They provide the team valuable face time as you work out kinks. These meetings can help foster communication, and they also serve as a great time to reconnect on everything that’s going on.



On my project, a ton of campaigns and sub-projects had been started, but nothing was ever really finished. It was missing that sense of follow-through, since there wasn't the guiding light of a stable project manager to lead it. So, the team didn’t enjoy working on it, because they felt their work would just sit in no-man’s land and never come to fruition.

So, once you have a sense of what's out there and needs to happen, you can start to build your plan of attack. But, we all know that if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. So before you build your plan, you need to figure out the top three things that need doing. After those, you can start thinking of the next three, and so on.

You can’t tackle everything at once. Don’t expect magic to happen.

Create Internal Organization


I’m a total sucker for a great organizational system. Here at Nebo, we use Basecamp for a lot of our internal tasks. So, after I’ve figured out what my game plan was, it was time to put it into action. This took me to Basecamp where I created milestones, to-do lists, and then assigned specific tasks to the team.

Structure is the name of the game here.

Work Through It Section by Section


Take your time. Do things right. Start with priority 1, get it to a good place, then move to priority 2. If you try to do too much at one time, it will all fall like a house of cards. Even when you are being pressured from stakeholders, hold fast. It’s better to do priority 1 well than to do priorities 4-6 only adequately.

Get Your Hands Dirty


There is so much to do. You may not be an SEO specialist or a PPC guru, but you can still help with certain tasks. There’s no sense assigning a task to someone when you could do it yourself in the same amount of time as creating a To-Do in Basecamp. Your team will love you for this, trust me.

But know where the boundaries are -- many jobs are best left to the specialists. Communicate with your team and find out where you can pitch in to save time.

Taking this kind of initiative will keep the project moving and help you earn the appreciation of your teammates.

Be Gracious and Celebrate


Your team is awesome, and you appreciate everything they do. Tell them so!

One of the things that I think project managers don’t do enough is celebrate success. Make sure you recognize when things are being checked off, and say thank you to the team member who worked on it. Without them, the entire project will fail.



This is probably the hardest, but one of the most important steps. Messy projects are stressful. Don’t let any of the craziness get to you. Nothing is worse than a stressed out and angry project manager!

So take a deep breath and smile.



It sucks, but you'll get through it.

Stay focused on the task at hand and remember to keep a positive attitude. Your hard work will be worth the effort when the project starts to come together. Trust me -- everyone, including you, will be happier when they start to feel like their hard work is actually making an impact.

When you finally get to that point, the team will be thankful you came on board. And maybe then you can start calling your “disaster project” by a new name:

A fun project!

Written by Abie McCauley on June 19, 2014


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Written by
Abie McCauley