We’ve recently talked about the Standish Group’s CHAOS survey released earlier this year. I think most organizations realize that way too many projects fail. The question is, can you identify the warning signs of a failing project early enough to do something about it?
The earliest signs that a project is in trouble are hard to measure objectively, but are relatively easy to spot if you’re watching:
1. Lack of interest-Whether it is a lack of interest within the project team or project stakeholders, it’s often demonstrated by people not showing up for meetings, a lack of active participation and feedback, or a poorly energized user base. These are warning signs that a project is in trouble.
2. Poor communication-If nobody is communicating, including stakeholders, team members and end users, there could be a problem.
3. Lack of velocity-Projects always need to be moving forward. The best way to keep a good velocity is to divide your project into a lot of small deliverables at frequent intervals. If the project isn’t moving forward, it’s likely in trouble.
4. A “no-bad-news” environment-Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. But sometimes organizations need to face the reality of negative news. This includes project team members who don’t want to be the messenger and business leaders who tend to shoot the messenger. If there is not an environment where the communication is honest about “reality,” projects tend to fail.
Intangibles aren’t the only indicators that a project is in trouble. There are a number of concrete signs you can watch for too:
1. Lots of overtime-A project running on schedule should have little or no overtime. Overtime is often a quick fix, but leads to poor employee health resulting from too much caffeine, too many late nights, and too much junk food. (It also leads to mistakes.)
2. Diversion of resources-When people are pulled from one project to work on something else it could be a sign of trouble. If you’ve budgeted your human resources properly, a few hours here and there on a troubled project can quickly add up and cascade down, endangering healthy projects.
3. Ratios trouble-Cost ratios and schedule ratios are financial metrics that allow business leaders to measure budgeted time and money verses money and time actually spent. Without metrics, all you have to rely on is the accuracy of the communication you receive from project teams.
4. Milestones aren’t met-This is pretty obvious, but it is surprising how many times this warning sign is ignored. Small, discrete, and often, are the guidelines for the milestones of a successful project.
5. Scope Changes-A common approach to shoring up a lagging project is to change the scope. Eliminating features or relaxing requirements is not uncommon, but if project teams are doing it because the project is in trouble, it’s a huge warning sign of a failing project.
Of course, warning signs are not the harbinger of doom, they are just warning signs that a project might be in trouble. Depending on your work management approach, the right project management tools can help your organization identify potential issues early, when there’s still time to do something about them. These challenges are universal to anyone doing project based work.
What is your experience? How do you spot a struggling project early and take action to remedy the situation?