The (at Most) 5 Questions You Need To Ask When You Inherit a Project

The (at Most) 5 Questions You Need To Ask When You Inherit a Project

The boss calls you into her office, tells you that Charlie has left and that you’re taking over his project. What happens next?

For most project managers the next few days, weeks or even months become a frenzy of:

  • Reading up / in
  • Holding status meetings where you don’t know if what you’re being told is true or not
  • Trying to understand the nuts and bolts of the project, and
  • Hoping you don’t make a wrong decision in the process.

For Fast Projects project managers the drill is a bit different.

You leave the boss’s office and call a meeting of the team. Since you’re the new kid on the block and they’ve been at this forever, they’ll want to intimidate you about your lack of knowledge.

Let them do that for a few minutes and then you say, ‘Okay, I just have a few questions:


Question 1. ‘What’s the goal of this project?’

You’d like to get two pieces of information back. The first is they can give it to you in a sentence. ‘We’re making a ________.’ ‘We’re solving the ________ problem.’ ‘We’ll be done when ________’.

Second, they hand you the document that describes this in detail; and this document was updated recently and not back in the last Ice Age.

If you get these two things then you can proceed to Question 2. If not, if the team starts to tell you a story, then you’re probably in trouble. Stories are great at the movies or in novels; they’re almost inevitably bad in projects.

If they give you a story, you’ve learned all you need to know. You’re going to need to go back to the beginning. Our free paper How To Run Successful Projects (just email and we’ll send it or buy the book) tells you what to do.


Question 2. ‘Can somebody show me the plan?’

If they can’t or if they say things like, ‘Well, we have a high-level plan’, you’re in trouble. Again our free paper tells you what to do.

If they hand you a plan, the first thing to check is whether it contains Work (a.k.a Effort) i.e. person-days (PD) or person-hours (PH). If it doesn’t, it’s not a plan – it’s a timeline – and the problem with timelines is that they can be made to show almost anything. Timelines can have no basis at all in reality.

If the plan doesn’t contain Work, then it means nobody has figured out how much stuff has to be done. Inevitably then, there won’t be enough people to do the stuff and the result of this will be at best, people working crazy hours, at worst, the project goes south.

If the plan does contain Work, the other thing to check is the level of detail in the plan. Divide the Total Work in PD by the number of tasks in the plan. The answer should come out somewhere in the range 1-5. If it doesn’t, there isn’t enough detail in the plan and once again, our free paper tells you what to do.

Assuming you’re in good shape this far, go on to Question 3.


Question 3: ‘Do you have enough people?’

The best way to answer this question is not to take anybody’s word for it but rather to do some basic arithmetic as follows:

You can think of the project as being a problem in Supply and Demand. Demand is the Total Work in PD. Supply is the people available to do that work.

Here’s a simple example to illustrate:

Demand:        (Say) 100 PD (Taken from the plan.)

Supply:           Groucho is putting in 20 PD

Chico is doing 30 PD

Harpo is doing 15 PD, which means that you’re

SHORT 35 PD, which would then become an issue to be solved.


Assuming you’ve made it this far, there are just two remaining questions.


Question 4: ‘Can somebody show me the latest Risk Analysis?’

If they can, good; if they can’t, read our free paper.


Question 5: ‘Where’s the contingency in the plan?’

If it’s there, good; if not, read our free paper.


There you are – in at most five questions, in a matter of minutes, you’re all over the project and you know if you’ve been handed a turkey and the team are probably looking at you in astonishment!