You own it!

When you come into a new position, assignment, or company, you typically inherit partially completed work.  Sometimes you get peaches, but more often it will be of the “rotten tomato” variety.  In fact, sometimes the ugliest or most defective projects were what chased the previous incumbent out of the job.

What to do

Somewhere between your first day in the position and the one year anniversary, the rotten work you inherited stops being “something imposed upon you,” and instead becomes “yours.”  The exact timeline depends on a number of factors, including the size and complexity of the challenge, the degree to which senior management was aware of its issues, and the culture of the organization.

While you likely won’t be able to completely avoid this situation, there are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself.  They include the following:

  1. Assess the project.
  2. Get concerns out in the open.
  3. Make sure management is aware of the challenges you are faced with.
  4. Get rid of anything that is already “Dead on Arrival.”
  5. Look for novel solutions.
  6. Work at it.  Hard.

I’ll go over each of these in turn.

Assess the project.

Evaluate the program, projects, or objectives you feel might trip you up.  This means going back to the original documentation and justifications, and trying to blow holes in them.  Look for the points of greatest risk or vulnerability.  Look for those critical assumptions that must be true for the project to work.  This can be tricky as you may not know whose “ox” you’re about to “gore.”

In one assignment, I inherited a train wreck of a project – one I could see was going to be a problem from my first day on the job.  Unfortunately, my boss was the primary author of the project’s justification.  I had to tiptoe through the errors and self-serving assumptions, trying to hit on the most important ones, particularly those that didn’t cast him in a bad light.

Get concerns out in the open.

If you go on record as having major misgivings about a project, you’ll have a better chance of being forgiven when stuff hits the fan.  But you’ve got to speak up.

A recent acquisition I inherited was an operational disaster.  It was clear to me from the moment of my first visit.  Instead of making that point clear to my boss, however, I drooled over what looked like an easy situation to improve upon.  Unfortunately, things didn’t work out the way I’d envisioned, and since I hadn’t laid any groundwork with higher management, the situation ended up reflecting poorly on me.

Make management aware of the challenges you face.

There’s a fine line between making higher management aware of risks and concerns, and whining.  I’d recommend handling this step with as light a touch as possible.  You don’t need to complain every time you are in front of your boss’ boss, but you can’t sweep concerns under the carpet, either.

One of my subordinates went way too far with this, and gave the impression that he was saying, “thank God I’ve arrived just in the nick of time to save the day.”  Because he overplayed his hand, he wasn’t cut any slack when his business went through a tough downcycle.

Get rid of anything that is already “Dead on Arrival.”

Give it away, kill it, put in on ice.  Do whatever you can to stop wasting energy and resources on a project or program that will never work.  It is much easier to put a bullet in a DOA project in the early days of your ownership.  The longer you wait, the more likely it is that senior management will wonder what you’ve been doing all this time.

One major project I inherited was clearly a mess, but whether it was salvageable was unclear.  I immediately set some tough cost and sales goals, and when neither were met, I pulled the plug on the project.  This particular effort had already injured several executives prior to it being assigned to me.  I was able to avoid any career injury as a result of quick action.

Look for novel solutions.

Find a new or better way to get the results you are after.  Or invent a new way to approach the project.  Just find something that hasn’t already been tried unsuccessfully.  Doing the same old thing and expecting different results really is the definition of insanity.  Or maybe stupidity.

In one assignment, I became aware that I’d inherited a completely unmanageable system of pricing.  Rather than trying to out-fence my distributors in one complex price negotiation after another – a system where the distributors had a natural advantage, we changed the game, going to a completely different method of pricing our product based on standard pricing with performance based discounts.  As a result, what had been a problem became a major success, allowing the company to expand margins without losing sales.

Work at it.  Hard.

If it’s difficult, risky, and not possible to shed, then you’d better pull out all the stops and work your tail off trying to make it a success.  You might, after all, actually succeed, pulling of a small miracle in the process.  Even if you don’t, effort usually counts for something.  Often it will help to partially mitigate any failure – at least in most corporate cultures.

Early in my career I had a chance to win a sale from a customer who honestly didn’t want to work with us.  I was persistent and worked every possible angle trying to get performance and cost right where they needed to be in order win the contract.

In the end, we managed to snag the contract and a couple of follow on ones as well.  The win was based more on how hard my team worked at it than actually defeating a competitor.  I learned then that hard work counts for something.  Sometimes, it is enough.


Inheriting a basket of bad programs and projects when you come into a new position has its definite challenges, but it doesn’t necessarily spell disaster.  If managed properly, you can discard the worst, and gain kudos for succeeding with the best bets.  27.3

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To the right is the cover for HEIR APPARENT.   In this tale, someone is killing corporate leaders in Kansas City.  But whom?  The police and FBI pursue a "serial killer" theory, leaving Joel Smith and Evangelina Sikes to examine other motives.  As the pair zero in on the perpetrator, they put their own lives at risk.  There are multiple suspects and enough clues for the reader to identify the killer in this classic whodunnit set in a corporate crucible.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.