Making Changes and Confronting Problems

Projects don’t always proceed as planned, and sometimes changes need to be made or problems arise. Reflect on the situation and consult your project documentation (charter, budget, and work plan) to figure out where the issue is. Should the project change course? Is there a problem in resources, personnel, or something else?

Making Changes to Your Work Plan

You can’t control everything, so you do have to be prepared for changes and anticipate problems where possible.

What might change?

Change in scope of the project (may require approval from sponsor):

  • Overall project change (e.g., change in deliverables)
  • Design element change
  • Technology change (e.g., need to change coding language)
  • Change in mission/business (e.g., shift of topic)
  • Change in skills (e.g., team members leave)

Change in baseline (which might require budget adjustments):

  • Project specifications
  • Financial changes (e.g., budgetary issues due to altered labor needs)

Changes in resources (e.g., planned resources no longer available and must be reallocated):

  • Partner changes (e.g., someone leaves and funding must be moved)
  • Changes in discipline/field

When is change needed?

  • you’re not meeting deliverables (e.g., too many of them or too little time)
  • your team isn’t working well together
  • you have addition of, or change in, partners
  • resources disappear
  • funders or stakeholders request changes
  • principle investigator (PI) isn’t doing their job (e.g., due to time constraints)

When is change allowed?

When it doesn’t cost you:

  •                         additional money,
  •                         additional time,
  •                         additional deliverables,

UNLESS by making the change you:

  •                         deliver a better product.
  •                         you can increase the impact.
  •                         you are better positioned for the next phase of the project.

HOWEVER, be especially cautious about scope creep:

  •                         when new partners come to the project.
  •                         when PIs get excited.
  •                         when projects get press.
  •                         when your staff changes.

To prevent scope creep, conduct regular scope assessments.


  • Does the current scope accomplish the primary goals?
  • Are the core stakeholders pleased? Get their feedback.
  • Is the project team enjoying its work?

When a project becomes painful:

  • Identify the quickest route to completion (while still meeting all requirements of original proposal).
  • Remove all extraneous meetings/work. Streamline as much as possible.
  • Be up front about what isn’t working.

Changing Project Scope:

  1. Schedule an all-team meeting to discuss changes and potential effects.
  2. Draft a memorandum of change (or other formal documentation) to update project work plan and team members’ responsibilities.
  3. Notify stakeholder, and ask permissions where necessary. Here it is generally much better to ask permission rather than ask forgiveness.

Confronting Problems

When Projects Go Awry

Delays (avoidable or otherwise):

  • Determine what (or who) is causing it.
  • Figure out what you MUST have to move forward.
  • Set and enforce hard deadlines.
  • Use your power(s) to get things moving.

Not enough money:

  • Revisit budget and identify where you can save money.
  • Determine if money can be reallocated.
  • Figure out which deliverables have the most impact, and prioritize them.

Not enough time:

  • Prioritize deliverables.
  • Be realistic about what can get done.
  • Consult work plan and make adjustments.
  • Let team members/funders know immediately.

When Team Members are Unsuccessful:

  • Is it a personality problem?
  • Is it a knowledge issue?
  • Is something going on with that person?
  • Play to people’s strengths.
  • Offer training.
  • Offer opportunity to discuss.
  • Draw a firm line in the sand.

When PIs (Principal Investigators) are the Problem:

“I am so….(busy, overworked, overcommitted).”

  • Be clear that time is money.
  • Be clear that everyone (and their time/effort) is valuable.
  • Be clear that without their support, the project can’t move forward.
  • Be clear that you can’t reconfigure everything because they have an issue.

Your Options:

  • Document deliverables (or lack thereof).
  • Document your attempts to meet/discuss.
  • Write a formal letter of request.
  • Cut off access to staff and resources.
  • A combination of these.

Keeping a log of issues that arise may help you identify patterns of problems.

When YOU (the project manager/coordinator) are the problem:

  • Allow team members or PI to suggest changes.
  • Be honest when you no longer are useful to the project.
  • Discuss clearly your problems/issues and offer solutions.
  • Decide whether you still believe in the project and then act accordingly.
  • Don’t let it fester.

Your job is to see the project through, but you should also be aware that at times, the best course of action will be to end the project, rather than continue to pour time and resources into a doomed venture.


From: Building Your First Work Plan, All About the Problems