I suppose every experienced PM has been in a situation at least once in their career, where s/he was asked to jump into a project mid-stream and take charge. Taking over someone else’s project mid-stream could be tricky. You never know whatcha gonna get, or what you are inheriting. Establishing exactly that, as quickly as possible, may very well be the key to successfully delivering and/or closing the project. First things first, understand where the project is, and make every effort to discover any known (and more importantly, unknown, thus far undiscovered or hidden) issues and/or risks. Here are four scenarios I can think of.
Scenario 1: You are transitioning from a PM mid-stream – this is the easiest. Have a detailed 1:1 with the outgoing PM, know the status, any critical/high/immediate threats to the project (for next two weeks), location of any available documentation, project team contact list etc. Everything else, you can figure out as you go along.
Scenario 2: Previous PM is no longer available. You need to jump in and take charge. A little difficult scenario, but – Get together with the project team, get as much information as you can in the lines of #1 above, meet with the stakeholders, understand their perspective/perception of the project, identify risks/issues, put plans/resolutions in place, and move forward.
Scenario 3: Many people of the project (including the PM who was running it earlier) are unavailable. A difficult situation to be in, but not everything is lost (at least not yet). Read whatever documentation is available (great, not so great, poor, doesn’t matter), meet with whoever is available from the project team, get whatever information you can get, find and assemble any available pieces (not necessarily ALL pieces) of the puzzle, and get a preliminary understanding of the project (why it started, what needs to be done, when it needs to complete, where is the project now, who is/are the owner/sponsor/s). This is more like a detective work. At this time, you would have a preliminary understanding of the project (plus what’s available and what is missing), and can talk about it in a reasonably intelligent manner. It’s time to meet with key stakeholders/sponsors. Remember that time is of essence (we cannot take a few weeks after jumping in before we meet with the key stakeholders/sponsors; it’s more like a couple to three days, or a week at most). By the time this is done, you would probably have as much understanding/information of the project as you can possibly get, given the circumstances. Now start assembling the team. Start with the project staffing needs, who is available, and who is missing. Put in the requisitions for the missing team members, build the team and march forward. Ensure you are building the right documentation along the way.
Key Note: Somewhere in there, during the meetings with key stakeholders/sponsors, validate the need for the project – is it still needed? Is it still as critical as it once was? Is it still as time bound as it once was? If so, what is the need, criticality, or timeline? Based on the answers to these questions, and the information gathered so far, you would be able to make a recommendation to the management (either move forward or pull the plug).
Scenario 4: No one that was involved in the project is available anymore, except the PMO manager who threw the project on your lap, asked you to take charge, follow through and close it. This is probably a cold project now getting warmer. This is probably the most difficult (or the easiest depending on how you view it) situation to be in. Find out if the key stakeholders/business sponsors (individuals) are still available. If so, start there. If not, find someone from the original sponsoring business stream, who is high enough up in the ladder that could make business decisions on the project. Find out if the project is still required. If not, socialize the information across business and PM management, and close it. If it is required, ask for information (business case, any available business documentation etc.). I would think, in this case – where no other information and/or people are available than the sponsoring organization and a business case, it would be like starting a new project – start from scratch and direct it to the finish line. But make sure you understand what exactly happened just before it went cold. Understand why it is getting warmer and why now (as opposed to earlier or later). It will at least help you identify some risks, issues, or set some priorities.