Here’s how to jump into an ongoing project and land on your feet

I recently wrote about overcoming project management obstacles when jumping into a new project as a freelancer—but what about actually getting going and starting to manage a project when everyone else is already in the middle of it?

Jumping into the middle of an ongoing project is pretty par for the course as a project manager. All sorts of things can happen to cause us to transition onto a project midway through: a colleague on vacation, we’ve started a new position, the current project manager needs a backup, or a teammate is unexpectedly away for a long period of time.

Regardless of the reason for a transition, it can be stressful to ramp up to something without knowing what to expect. Here are 6 things that have helped me hugely when jumping into the midst of an ongoing project:

1. Get everyone’s take on the project progress and status.
I like to talk with everyone on the team individually to get a sense of what their role has been on the project, what the project status looks like from their point of view, and note any comments or issues that might help give me context into future needs on the project (like potential phase 2 items, QA points, or red flags). If you’re a client-facing project manager, it also helps to meet with stakeholders individually to do the same. Asking casual questions to determine the general knowledge each colleague has for a project also identifies who to go to with particular questions down the line.

2. Read through all project data and historic communication.
When I start a project I ask for access to existing communications in my company’s project management tool of choice as soon as possible. I also ask to be added to things like Slack channels and project repos, and request any recent project-relevant communications via email are forwarded to me for my own reference. From there I’ll spend a few hours reading through all of the most recent discussions and comments, as well as look at tasks, timelines, documents, deliverables, and assets that are available to me and directly related to the project. Building my own context for the project will naturally fill in any gaps and further identify places I need to focus on to get more up to speed. I try not to get too caught up in specifics (yet), and use the time to build a more broad understanding as I initially read through.

3. Compare SOWs and promised deliverables to what has been done so far.
Looking at the actual contractual agreement on a client project helps me understand what expectations exist with the stakeholders. If it’s a non-client facing project, I review any communications from project requests or kickoffs and try to understand what is expected as the end product of this project. Then, I take a look at what has been done so far in the project management system, as well as reviewing any files related to already delivered (or finalized) deliverables in order to understand how close we might be to finishing out particular pieces of the project.

4. Pull project reports for time and budget information.
This might seem like a given, but is very important to do when starting up with a project that’s already going. Use your time tracking, budget or invoicing tool to pull data for the project time and costs so far. If your team uses biweekly or milestone billing, review what’s been billed out so far and determine where in the invoicing process you currently sit. Review any red flag items—like deliverables running near or over budget already—and see if any communications have been made regarding these items yet. Use all of these reports to get a sense of where there might to focus more energy as you get started, but also to understand what the general time spend on the overall project looks like overall.

5. Review open to dos and note anything that’s been in progress for a long amount of time.
I take note of any open tasks in the project management system so far and make sure those line up with what phase the project is currently within. I also take a look at any items in progress, and note anything that might seem stuck, in progress for a long time, or in large rounds of edits. These tasks will tend to tell me whether there are “hidden” potential blockers on a project, or if there is a larger context around pieces of a project that might be stuck or in need or more editing. Reviewing these logged tasks can reveal a lot—or help sound the all-clear!

6. Talk about project status and review data with the team.
After I’ve spent some time getting a sense of where a project stands, I’ll make it a point to walk through this and my understanding with the team—all together. This gives us a chance to talk through my observations, thoughts, questions, and assumptions, and also gets everyone into the same place to talk through any miscommunications or alternative viewpoints of the project status. It’s so helpful to take the time to get a whole team talking when a new project manager is brought onto a project—it gives everyone a chance to buy into the next steps and get a refresher on project expectations and status.

While starting on a new project—especially one that’s already being worked on—can be daunting, it’s so much easier to do so knowing you’re not the only one who’s gone through it. I love the challenge of jumping into a project midway, and look at it as a chance to sharpen up my project management skills while getting to help a new team and client achieve their goals. Hopefully these tips will help you do the same next time you’re presented with such a challenge. At the very least, you’ll know what to anticipate next time you come across this situation.

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