11 Questions you should ask when taking over a project from someone else

Not an easy situation you are in!

Taking over a running project from someone else is like …. ummm … like moving in with another family as the other parent. You really don’t know what you are inheriting, so to speak. Maybe the “initiator” took his/her responsibility seriously and you will be joining a group of well-behaved children. Or he/she did not do a proper job and you are moving into a zoo of crazy animals. You never know.

However …

In the case of a project, you can gauge its health and status before jumping on the wagon. This will give you an idea of what to expect for the months to come. And you’ll know where to put your focus on to ensure the project remains on track (or gets back on track).

As a former Senior IT Project Manager, I have been on both sides, handing over my project to someone else and taking over the lead for another project. It has always been a smooth transition and we never rushed it.

Here are the questions I found helpful when taking over a project that is already in progress:

 “Why are you leaving the project?”

People engaged in a conversation when handing over a project

Yep. I want to get a feel for the PMs motivation to walk away from the project. Is he/she leaving on good terms or have there been issues that led to his/her departure. In the ideal case, the project is in good shape and this is just a normal career move (the PM found a more attractive role). But it could also be the difficult project environment, a particular stakeholder or the lack of management buy-in that caused frustration and led to the project leader’s resignation. It could also be a matter of skills and the current PM may not have had the right combination of skills to handle the project.

This is helpful to know because, as I said earlier, it allows you to plan your next moves. And you won’t be surprised when facing headwinds or when finding yourself in a first escalation meeting because some stakeholder is pissed about something :-).

“What is the project goal?”

Why was the project started in the first place? With a project in full force and team members involved with the technical details, it is easy to lose sight of the original goal. So I would dig deep to understand the motivation behind the project and the benefit it is supposed to deliver to the organization.

As I have been highlighting in my other posts, many people are confused about the term ‘project goal’. They often mix up the what (the main steps that constitute the project) with the goal (the why). But that’s wrong. We are always performing projects for a specific purpose. A certain outcome we want to achieve.

For you to do a good job, you need to refocus the project to its original goal. Only then will the customer be happy, because the project is enabling him to do what he wants to do.

“Does the project have all the necessary approvals?”

This is critical! You don’t want to get involved in a project only to find out that the necessary pre work hasn’t been done (properly) and some approvals are missing.

Check that you have at least the following approvals:

  • Approved Schedule
  • Approved Budget
  • Approved Resources
  • Approved Scope
  • Approved Project Charter
  • Approved Purchases / Expenses
  • Approved Customer Requirements (check the Business Requirements Document / BRD) – if the project is already in that stage

Depending on the project stage, there may be more items that should already be approved. I’m thinking of product acceptance results, QC/test results, technical certifications etc.

Make sure to actually check the signatures. Only seeing is believing!

“Who wants to make the project a success?”

Here we are getting to the question of project sponsorship  (click for a definition). Ideally, the project sponsor is fully committed to the project and wants the team to succeed. If that is not the case, you better start looking for another job.

While the sponsor can just be an (anonymous) organizational entity, there are always actual people behind who you are dealing with. Some people are more committed and more dependable than others.

I found it always helpful to build strong ties with those people who had the strongest interest in making the project a winner. The managers and executives who desperately need whatever your project is going to deliver. These people are your allies, and not only should you maintain good relationships with them (call them up regularly, have lunch together).

They can be very helpful when decisions have to be made, or when some other party is blocking the project. Those committed leaders have management leverage and the network in the organization to influence the course of actions.

“Where can I find the documents?”

I find that a well-maintained, central document repository with all project documents and files neatly organized is always a good sign.

Take some time to go through the files and check if everything is complete and up-to-date. The date of the last change is a good indicator here.

In terms of documents, I would look for:

  • Project To-do list (action items and issues)
  • Project schedule
  • Budget
  • Project organization
  • Project charter
  • Risk log
  • Communication plan
  • Stakeholder overview
  • Kickoff slides
  • Change requests (tracking sheet and individual CRs)
  • Meeting minutes
  • Business Requirements Document (BRD)
  • Time sheets
  • Any approval sheets (depends on the project)

These are the key documents you need for a proper handover. If anything is missing, put something together with the help of the current Project Manager.

If you need templates, here are the ones I’m using:

“What is the current status of the project?”

Sit down with the current PM and review the project to-do list together. What are pending tasks? Which of these are critical? Who is working on them?

Next, I would have 1:1 conversations with each team member and stakeholder. You want to get a complete and accurate picture of the project status, and the current project manager may not be willing to reveal the whole (and maybe ugly) truth. In any case, it is helpful to get a balanced perspective on the past work, and having individual conversations also helps you to build trust with everybody on the team.

“What obstacles has the project faced in the past?”

Issues from the past may reappear and require your attention. Therefore it is good to know about any challenges the project has been facing. Project management is all about being prepared! Once you know what could go wrong, you can take the appropriate measures to deal with any challenges.

Past issues could be:

  • Problems with certain team members or stakeholders
  • Resource bottlenecks (a common one)
  • Problems with suppliers or contractors (also very common)
  • Technical difficulties
  • Long lead times for project purchases
  • Problems with authorities

Depending on the gravity of the issues and the available options, you can make adjustments that can pay off quickly.

Maybe a non-performing team member can be replaced with a better candidate. Or you switch suppliers if you are not locked into any long-term contract. Or you reach out to any “troublemakers” in the organization to understand why they are not happy about the project and try to get them onboard.

“What are the major current issues?”

It makes sense to look at issues separately from the overall project status, because it’s the current issues that you should be dedicating most of your attention to. If things are not moving ahead because some rivaling teams decided to start a political power game, or if work cannot continue because of a technical issue which the responsibles are unable to resolve, these are the issues that have to be addressed with priority.

I recommend grouping issues into three buckets:

  • Critical issues: The entire project is at risk, meaning the project may not achieve the intended goal or benefit should the issue not be solved
  • Medium issues: The project can proceed, BUT not with the full scope (any gaps are accepted by the customer and can be filled in later)
  • Smaller issues: Nothing to worry about! This could be, for example, “nice to have” requirements which cannot be realized (on time).

The above categorization must be done together with the customer/sponsor!

“Walk me through the project organization. Who are my contacts?”

Ask for an overview of the project organization. There should be a PowerPoint where all team members and supervising functions like the sponsor are depicted, including their role.

You need to know:

  • who is in your team
  • if all position are filled
  • who has to approve expenditures
  • who creates invoices
  • who handles the admin work (project office?)

“What tools or apps do you use?”

The team likely uses a set of tools to manage the various parts of the project. You want to familiarize yourself with these tools and ensure you have access to them.

Common areas we usually use apps for:

  • Storing documents
  • Scheduling
  • Task management
  • Budget planning and tracking
  • Time tracking
  • Collaboration
  • Workflows
  • Video conferencing
  • Design/drawing

Learning a new software may not be what you want, but the sooner you know how to use a particular tool, the earlier you can focus on the day-to-day management of your project.

And if you are going to use Microsoft Project and are not familiar with the tool, I have an e-book for you which gets you started very quickly. Go check it out: The 80/20 Guide to Microsoft Project.

“Where are we in the schedule? What are ongoing and next steps?”

In order to plan your time and to ensure progress, you need to know how the project is tracking.

In particular, you should look at current activities and have a word with the task owens. You also want to look ahead and understand what steps are scheduled for the next 4-8 weeks.

In case of meetings organized by the project manager, these meetings should be transferred to you as the new project lead.

It’s not just what you ask. It is also how you ask

One thing to be sensitive about is the situation of the departing project manager. When handing over a project to someone else, there is always the fear of being found out. People are afraid of being picked on for not doing the job well. What does that mean for you?

Be very friendly and communicate that you are asking all these questions just to ensure a smooth handover. Don’t go too deep into the why — why the PM do things the way he did — instead focus on the what: What has been achieved, what next steps are planned and so on. The more you build trust with the leaving PM, the more details and “insider” information you will be able to gather, and the better you can assess the health of your project.

What do you do once you have clarified all the questions?

Schedule a weekly 1:1 call for the next 4-8 weeks where you can discuss any open questions with the former project manager. That will make your life a lot easier.

I wish you good luck with your new project!