How to Lead a Project When You Come In Mid-Stream

Nov 25, 2014
5 Min Read

If you’re a new manager or team lead, you might find yourself charged with leading work that’s already well in progress. How do you jump in and learn what you need to know in order to effectively drive it forward? 

Here are three keys to successfully leading a project when you come in mid-stream.

1. Make sure that you’re clear on final outcomes. Rather than getting bogged down in process, focus first on what the project’s outcomes should be. Are you clear on what success would look like? Does everyone on your team have the same vision for a successful outcome? If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” focus there first.

From there, you can look at whether the project plan that’s in place looks like it will lead to those outcomes.

2. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to sit down with the people playing key roles on the project and ask questions. No one is expecting you to come in knowing all the answers, and it’s not a sign of weakness to lean on team members to bring you up to speed. (In fact, what would be a sign of weakness is jumping in and trying to lead the work without first getting really familiar with the full landscape.)

In addition to project-specific questions that you’ll likely have as you look over the project plan, you’ll also want to know:

  • Are we on track to meet the deadlines associated with the project? Are we on track to meet the goal of the project itself? How do we know?
  • Have we done similar work before? If so, what went well? What could have gone better?
  • Who will need to buy into the project and our approach? Have they already been consulted? At what stage do others need to sign off, if relevant?
  • What might go wrong? What’s in place to guard against that?
  • What are the most pressing current needs of the work, and how can we address them?
  • What are the most pressing needs likely to be in a week/month/three months, and how can we address them?

3. Make suggestions if you have them, but don’t feel obligated to put your stamp on the work. Sometimes when a manager or team lead comes into a project midway through, they feel obligated to prove themselves by reshaping the work, even when doing so won’t improve it. Resist this urge if you have it. The most effective leads don't mess with things that are working well, and teams can generally see right through this behavior anyway. You’ll earn credibility with your team if you’re secure enough not to remake the project just to establish your authority.

To be clear, you should of course make suggestions if – after doing the steps above – you have input that you genuinely think will strengthen the work. But if your newly inherited team already has things running smoothly, it can be a credit to you if you simply help them continue what they’re already doing.

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