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Case Study - Rescuing a Troubled Project

style="color:rgb(50,58,69);">Colin A. McCall-Peat, Head of Group Project Management, Liberty Group


This case study outlines a troubled project and the issues faced by the project. The case study attendees are asked to analyze the project information provided and to recommend courses of action to bring the project back on track. Attendees are also asked to suggest actions that could be taken on future similar projects to prevent them from falling into similar problems. The key lessons learnt can be applied by other organizations to avoid common pitfalls which result in projects going off track, as well as knowing the tell-tale signs of troubled projects and actions to take to bring them back on track.


A leading financial services company embarked on a new product development project. The nature of the company's business is that it operates in an extremely competitive environment that necessitates fast delivery to market so as to prevent competitor companies from gaining dominant market share with similar competitive products. The key success factors of the project were, therefore, time to market and quality. Cost of delivery was not a major concern.

Project Details


The scope of the project was to invent new investment product, including the systems changes, the policy documents, marketing launch material, and the administrative user training. The project was divided into sub-projects consisting of: Systems, Marketing, Training, and Legal. A program manager was appointed, as well as sub-project coordinators.

Time Scales

The launch date was set as 1 June 2002. The product had to be ready for launch on this date, as all the marketing material would reflect this date and the launch had to precede the launch of similar products from competitors. The project start date was 3 December 2001. The tasks that had been completed prior to 3 December were the Business Case compilation and approval and the project team establishment.


The systems development was to be done using the Java programming language and environment, which was new to the development team. The developers were sent on Java programming training 2 weeks prior to the project start. The developers were used to working in a COBOL programming environment and had not worked with any object-oriented languages before.

Case Study Summary of Events

Business Case Development

The Product Development Department developed the Business Case for the proposed new product, including projected cost/benefit analysis based on previous similar products and current market share. The Business Case was reviewed by Executive Management and approved.

Requirements Definition

The Product Development Department developed the requirements specification for the new product. These requirements were specified based on the understanding level of the project team, which had many years of experience in the company and an extremely good understanding of the systems. Some of the finer details of the requirements, such as the reporting requirements and the final policy document wording, were not defined at this initial stage. The outstanding requirements would be agreed during the project, once the users had decided exactly what they wanted in this regard.

Project Team Appointment

John was appointed as the overall Program Manager. John had been with the company for 23 years and been involved in numerous projects for new product developments in the past. He knows the existing systems intimately and has good working relationships with all the various departments involved in product development and launch. The project team appointed consisted of people from various departments, all of whom had been involved in previous product development projects. Their knowledge of the systems and applications is extensive.

Project Kick-off

The Product Development Executive, the Sponsor of the project, chaired the project kick-off meeting, held on 3 December 2001. She emphasized the importance of the project to the company, as it would ensure good returns by getting the new product to the market before the competitors. She stressed that the delivery date must not be compromised in any way, as this would open the doors for competitive products and the opportunity would be missed. The Program Manager and the sub-project coordinators were asked to get busy immediately with their planning, and a follow-up meeting was set for 17 December to review the project plans.

Project Plan Development

The project team had been involved in many similar projects in the past, and thus knew exactly what the project entailed. For this reason the plans were based on previous historical information of past projects. The project plans included only the systems related work. The interfacing to other areas, such as Legal Department, Marketing and Operations would be handled by the Program Manager at the specific time required for their input. Project plans were drawn up using a scheduling tool. The phases and tasks were detailed, but resources were not allocated to the tasks, since each resource knew exactly what their role was on the project and which tasks related to them. Task dependencies were not put into the plan, as this made the plan too complex. Dependencies were handled by each team member and by the Program Manager.

Project Plan Management

Management of the project plan consisted of updating tasks with their percentage complete on a weekly basis. Record of actual hours spent on specific tasks was not deemed necessary. Each resource gave an estimate of the percentage complete for each task, which was used to update the plan. Resource availability was handled in an informal manner whereby each resource gave feedback on a weekly basis regarding their workload on the project and other non-project work responsibilities, such as systems maintenance.

Progress Reporting

Progress reports were produced every 2 weeks. These consisted of a progress summary, deliverables attained, % complete, risks, issues and cost information. (See attached most recent progress report).

Minutes were kept of all meetings. See attached most recent meeting minutes.

Progress for Period 3 December 2001 to 31 January 2002

Initial progress was good, with all team members working well together. Programming started almost immediately, since the team knew the systems so well that they were able to make some of the required changes immediately. Some issues were identified with the user requirements, since not enough detail was in the requirements document. These issues were resolved between the programmers and the users. Some of the programmers experienced problems when they discovered they were working on the wrong version of the user requirements. This was resolved when the users printed out the current version of the requirements for all the team members to make sure they were all working on the current version.

Progress was not as fast as desired, due mainly to the users changing their minds about the requirements. The programmers were very accommodating with such changes and tried their utmost to keep the users satisfied. Unfortunately, the number of changes and additional requirements requested by the users caused the work to fall behind schedule. When some of the programmers complained to the Program Manager, he said that it was essential that the users received what they wanted, so their changes must be accommodated, even if it meant having to work extra hours to catch up.

The programming was also delayed from time to time due to technical problems experienced with the new development environment. The company did not have anyone experienced in the new development software, thus having to rely on vendor support, which was a bit lacking due to their commitments at other companies.

Progress for Period 1 February 2002 to 1 April 2002 (2 months before live date)

The Sponsor became concerned with the project progress, since she felt there was a risk of not meeting the required delivery date. The programmers were working long hours to try catch up on the project work, as well as doing their required maintenance and problem fixing of the live systems. The Legal Department said that they may not be able to provide the Policy Document wording in time for the live date, due to other priorities. They said they may have been able to if they had known about it sooner. The user department said they may have a problem getting the test packs ready for user testing, as some staff were going on leave over the Easter period.

Initial testing revealed that the performance of some of the modules was very slow. This was resolved to some extent when it was found that some of the programmers had used inefficient coding, as they were new to the programming language being used.


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