Change of project manager in an ongoing project

by | 27.11.2017

Do you know the statement “If you discover you’re riding a dead horse, get off”? On the World Wide Web, there are many funny things that organisations take instead: they compare dead horses with each other, change the criteria for when a horse is considered dead, double the feed ration for the horse, exchange the horse for another dead horse, simply renovate the stable or change the horse supplier. At least the last point occurs more frequently in the project environment – in a modified form, of course – when changing project managers in an ongoing project. The management would like to win you over as a new project manager and explains that you absolutely have to take over a project and save it. Now it’s getting difficult – should you just say “yes” even though you might think “no”? Should you say “no” and let the chance pass? What do you do? How can you make an informed decision and safely ride the project home?

Causes for the change of the project manager

When changing project managers, it is important to know the reasons why a change is necessary. Essentially, there can be three reasons:

  • Organisational reasons – e.g. if a project manager is overloaded, if he has to deal with too many different projects at the same time, if the resource planning was too optimistic or if there are changed project priorities.
  • Personal reasons – e.g. if a project manager is absent for a longer period due to illness, decides on a different working time model with fewer hours or goes on parental leave.
  • Lack of performance – e.g. when the project manager’s knowledge, skills and experience are not sufficient, communication and cooperation between the project manager and the team is disrupted or milestones are missed in terms of time and content.

A change of project manager is relatively easy to implement for organisational and personal reasons. If the project is not even behind schedule, the reasons can be communicated directly and easily. However, if a project threatens to fail due to the performance of the project manager and/or the performance of the team, the change of project manager becomes a challenge for all involved. Perhaps the management itself made mistakes in the past when it ignored feedback from the team, tolerated unachieved milestones and avoided discussions about problems with the project manager? It is therefore important for the management to give the project full commitment and support in the course of the change of project manager. The management must be aware that it is not enough to simply replace the project manager. In addition, they should talk to the current project manager about the reasons that lead to his replacement. If it is possible to gain common insights and possibly even agree on qualification measures, the current project manager can also take something good out of such a situation.

Inventory of the project

You probably know the situation when you ask five people for their opinions, you get six different answers. People perceive, interpret and evaluate situations differently. For your decision, this means that you have to form your own opinion before taking on the current project. You need to take stock – even if it may take a few days. You should have interviews with the project staff, the current project manager and management, and also list any challenges that need to be addressed. You must be convinced of the feasibility of the project, otherwise you may not take over the project.

In theory, the stocktaking sounds simple, but in practice this is not an easy task. The project is under time pressure, there is unrest and possibly dissatisfaction among many participants. If you want to take the time to identify the actual problems of the project before you take on the project, then this rarely meets with approval. This makes it all the more important to take stock, even if you have been actively involved in the project before. As a project manager, you have a different view of a project. It is possible that the business case has changed, the customer has delivered countless new requirements, the development partner is late with his deliveries, employees are left alone with challenges or technical interrelationships were only recognised in the course of the project – there are many aspects that can become problems in projects.

The following information is relevant for your assessment of the current project:

  • What are the project vision and project goal?
  • What is the result of the stakeholder analysis?
  • What was the business case at the beginning of the project and what is it today?
  • What is the schedule and resource plan? What are the real deviations from the plans and why?
  • Which epics and features are there in the backlog, what is the status of the requirements, which user stories are currently being implemented, etc.?
  • How is the project organised?
  • Which tools and methods are used and what is the response of the project staff?
  • What is documented by whom and how, and which rules and agreements apply with regard to the obligation to provide evidence?
  • Is there a communication plan with the stakeholders and what does it look like in detail?
  • What does the risk plan look like and what measures have been taken to minimise risks?
  • What are the planned and actual expenses and costs?
  • What is the motivation of all project participants and how important is the project?

You may think of further questions – you should definitely answer them. The aim of the questions is to get a real impression of the project – no more, no less.

Convention of speech and transitional period

If the change of project manager takes place, it is important to agree a convention of speech with all parties involved. Employees should know why there is a change of project manager – if the previous project manager lacks performance, a little sensitivity is of course required. If the change is relevant for external partners, they must also be informed.

In politics, it is relatively common to grant new incumbents a 100-day period to take over the business. Something comparable may not always be possible in the project business, but you should still try to arrange a transition phase as personal security. In this phase, you compare the project information provided in advance with your actual project impressions. You identify the needs of your employees and weak points in the previous planning. Ideally, you will also find the cause of the project imbalance, communicate the actual project situation to the management, discuss solution options and define measures. You may even define new project goals together with the management and revise the business case.


If you are involved in taking over a project, you should arrive at a well-founded assessment of the status quo. It does not matter whether you have already been actively involved in the project or which phase the project is in. A change of project manager is easier to implement in early project phases, but the decisive factor is whether you are convinced of the feasibility of the project. For this an individual stocktaking is indispensable. Even if the management needs an answer from you as soon as possible, you should take the time to make a good decision for yourself and the company. Hectic is a bad advisor here. If the decision to take over is made, it is important to talk honestly about the problems of the project, find solutions and determine measures. The transition phase gives you the chance to gain further insights and to take advantage of the management’s commitment to maximum support. But there is one thing you should bear in mind before the takeover: “If you discover that you are riding a dead horse, dismount”.



Michael Schenkel has published additional posts in the t2informatik Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: Beware: Turnover of Staff

Beware: Turnover of Staff

t2informatik Blog: Transformation is a constant

Transformation is a constant

t2informatik Blog: The price is (almost) irrelevant

The price is (almost) irrelevant

Michael Schenkel
Michael Schenkel

Head of Marketing, t2informatik GmbH

Michael Schenkel holds a degree in business administration (BA) and is passionate about marketing. He likes to blog about project management, requirements engineering and marketing. And he is happy to meet you for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.