Five Early Warning Signs of a Troubled Project

Thousands of surveys around the world show that projects are rarely delivered on time, on budget and in scope. Here are the warning signs and what you can do to turn things around.

You don’t see it coming until it’s too late. Everything was “green” until it wasn’t. All parts of the project were close to being on time. At least until they weren’t.
If you knew earlier, you could have made changes that wouldn’t be as costly and damaging to your customer relationships as the choices you’re making now.

That light at the end of the tunnel? Definitely a train.

So what to do?

Most project managers and executives assume that since the schedule showed the project was on time, it must have been a bad schedule that caused it. If we had planned better, we would have finished on time!

Well, maybe.

Projects are not abstract things, lived out in spreadsheets or software.

There is no such thing as a perfect plan, no such thing as a 100% accurate forecast. After all, who can predict the weather?

Here’s the thing. Uncertainty is What Makes a Project a Project. When we start the projects, we know many things we will encounter on the way to completion, but not every thing. That means surprises are a way of life in the project world. Any plan is made up of educated guesses about what will happen in the future. How accurate could they be?

Experienced project managers develop coping strategies: negotiating for more resources, disguising contingency, stakeholder management, risk management processes, increasing the amount of detail, frequent re-planning, and more. All of these are good to have, but they don’t get at the root of schedule variation; they’re coping strategies for the surprises that plague every project.

No matter how good you are at planning, you will never have a perfect schedule. You can make them better, but they will never be perfect. Improving your planning is not where you’re going to find the biggest opportunity. You be nimble during execution. If you’re not, your great plan will not matter anyway.

Let’s agree that your schedule will not be very good. How do you know if you’re in trouble? How can you quantify your nimbleness? How do you pull out of a bad situation?

The Early Warning Signs of a Project in Trouble

Project planning is a bit like time travel. Who knows what we’ll find there?

So rather than be the best forecaster, build the best time machine, the project delivery process. Your execution behaviors are the best predictors of project success.

While we can find opportunity in every plan (I started my career as a scheduler), look first at what the project team is doing.

  • How they’re managing the project.
  • How flexible are they?
  • Do they respond quickly?
  • Decisively?
  • How are they responding to the day to day surprises that are presented to them?

There are behavioral indicators of whether your project will be on time. They can be observed, measured, and improved.

  1. Focus on the future; what needs to be done, not what has been done
  2. One team, one goal; the team members’ functional objectives are subordinated to project objectives
  3. Task priorities are stable; they do not change from day to day so resources are able to work on each project task until completion
  4. We know where the leverage points to accelerate progress; bottlenecks are clearly identified and communicated
  5. All leading to rapid resolution of the unexpected

So let’s look at your team. Are they doing any of the following?

Living in the Past

In many projects, reporting progress is a substitute for moving forward. True, you must understand where you are relative to where you’re going, but reporting completions is not a substitute for managing the future.

If your team is living in the past, they’ll be spending a great deal of time reporting “progress”; percent completed and giving the reasons why things are not done. They’re a little stuck; working to understand where they are in the project. Project meetings are spent sorting out what has been done and negotiating priorities. They’re not looking forward and project progress reflects it.

You won’t get to your destination looking through the rear view mirror.

Check out this video to learn more of this symptom and you can do about it.

Conflicting Goals

Many times, the only person who is actually on the project is the project manager. He then spends his time on enrollment and buy in activities, rather than the core task of moving the project ahead. It happens so frequently, there is a section of the body of knowledge devoted just to stakeholder management.

If any team member has conflicting goals, they will not be fully engaged with work of the project, they may even make decisions that make completing the project more difficult. They don’t respond to questions quickly, don’t come to meetings, are not working with the rest of the team to move the project forward.

In order to win, everyone on the team must have the same goal.

Check out this video to learn more of this symptom and you can do about it.

Shifting Priorities

The project team members are spending their time sorting through the work to determine which tasks should have the highest priority. They’ll respond to the latest communication from a customer or a friend, or a boss. They’ll be switching – changing priorities for the resources (people) doing the work of the project.

When priorities are changing, more work is added to the project, time and productivity are lost, and the project is delayed.

Priority shifting breeds multitasking; the number one killer of productivity.

Check out this video to learn more of this symptom and you can do about it.

Wandering Bottlenecks.

The project never has enough resources to complete the work at hand. Finding more resources is a constant battle. There’s never enough time or budget. It just seems that the right resources are not available when you need them. The team may feel a little like they’re playing project “Whack-A-Mole”.

There is always a constraint that limits the rate at which the project can be completed, but if it’s always moving from week to week or day to day, it indicates a poor grasp of the resource requirements to complete the project.

The bottleneck is where you get leverage to go faster. If you don’t recognize it, you’re just spinning your wheels.

Check out this video to learn more of this symptom and you can do about it

Slow Response to Problems

Many projects are riddled with the “I sent an email, but have not gotten a response.” kinds of problems. Yes, the different time zones are an issue. Yes, we get hundreds of emails a day, but a delayed response to a critical problem slows the entire project down.

A slow response to problems indicates a team that is not engaged. They have a poor understanding of what the important issues are, who owns them, and what is needed to resolve them.

The single largest aspect of project duration is wait time. The more you wait, the longer it takes.

Diagnose Your Project. Will You Be Late?

Take a free project execution maturity assessment and see how you’re doing.

Experienced project managers and executives may still point to the plan as the biggest cause for troubled projects.  Or the assumptions behind the plan. They have a point, I have never worked in a recovery project where the plan was acceptable or was even being used to drive the day to day behavior. I’m talking about leverage. In a recovery situation, you must focus on the most critical elements that will get your project back on track as quickly as possible. You can’t fix everything that’s wrong, you have to fix the things that will give you the biggest results as fast as possible. Re-planning your project is an excuse to delay taking the necessary medicine to get things moving. Focus on execution. that’s where your leverage is.

Next up, a project recovery strategy. If you’re in a hurry, you can watch the webinar on this topic here

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