Is the Project in Trouble? - Project Management

Not only is change a guarantee on your next project, so also are problems. Problems aren't always bad and they don't always mean an end to life as you know it. But if you aren't careful, problems can quickly get out of control and wreak havoc on your project. The monitoring process we discussed, in which you put on your eagle eyes and watch for every sign that something may be amiss, is one way to determine whether problems are about to get out of control. Monitoring and controlling project changes will also keep problems at a manageable level.

Unfortunately, there are times when schedules or budgets or key personnel do run amuck and the damage to the project is not repairable. This section should alert you to some of the warning signs that the project is headed the wrong way down a one-way street. If you recognize these signs early enough and deal with them correctly, you may avert a head-on collision with an unsuccessful project.

Just Say No

Before we look at some of those early warning signs, let's talk about flat-lined projects. Sometimes it's time to pack up the project management tool bag and go home. You and the team have put a lot of time and effort into the project, but it is so far out of control that there's no coming back. When that's the case, the best call to make is to end the project.

Most of the things that will cause the project to get to this point are the same as the warning signs we'll look at next. If you've done a good job creating the project plan, communicating with stakeholders and the project team, and monitoring and controlling the performance of the project, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes projects end on their own accord; they outlive their usefulness and the organization drops interest in the project. Other times projects are killed by overzealous stakeholders attempting to make a career-boosting move that will propel them into the Big Boss seat.

Let's take a look at some of the other warning signs of project problems that could become project killers.

Early Warning Signs

Lest I sound redundant, you've seen many of these signs before. I just want one last chance to tell you how important it is to keep your eyes peeled for these signs. It's not unusual for seasoned project managers to have a failed project or two under their belt—but projects that fail as a result of the project manager's error, lack of preparation, or oversight are not going to win you that promotion to the project management director's position anytime soon. Here we go.

Poor planning techniques are starting to influence the scope, schedule,quality, or budget of the project. How many more ways can this one be said? The better your project planning skills and the better your documentation, the easier it will be to manage your project and the higher the chances of completing a successful project. Poor project planning techniques are a sure indicator of an unsuccessful project.

You and your team start telling key stakeholders what they want to hearinstead of the true project status and issues. Never tell the sponsor and the key stakeholders only what they want to hear. This is a sure sign the project is headed for disaster. They might not want to know about the problems and want only the good stuff reported to them, but it's your job to tell them anyway. If you don't inform them of problems and issues, they'll make you the scapegoat when it all crashes in, and I think you know what happens after that.

People don't know what's going on, they don't understand their jobs ordeliverables, and rumors are spreading. Communicate well and communicate the right information to the right people. Be an active listener, watch for nonverbal cues, and let the sponsor and key stakeholders know about important project information almost as soon as you learn it yourself. Many times they can help you resolve problems in ways you wouldn't have thought about. And don't forget the honesty factor. Tell them the truth, even if it hurts. They can't help you resolve problems they aren't fully informed about.

The project started late but is still expected to finish on time. This can cause problems later in the project. Delayed starts aren't uncommon because key personnel may not be ready for the new assignments, the budget may not receive approval prior to the planned start date, and so on. If no schedule changes are permitted, use some of the techniques we discussed earlier such as crashing and reducing scope to help meet the project schedule.

Budget cuts are impacting the project dramatically. This can be a sure project killer. This might be one of those situations where it's time to pack up and call it quits. But don't come to that conclusion too quickly. Assess the impact on the scope and schedule and see if there are ways to work within the new limits. If not, just say no. Let the sponsor and stakeholders know that it's not possible to complete the project with the existing requirements with the budget cuts they've proposed.

The team is starting to lag behind due to poor duration estimates or lackof skill. Or, they're motivated and committed but don't possess the skillsneeded to do the work of the project. Consider hiring subject-matter experts to help with the lack of skills problem, and encourage these experts to mentor your team members. If poor duration estimates are the problem, consider having the estimates examined by a third party or a knowledgeable expert from another department before using the estimates to complete the project schedule. If you're already in the midst of a project with this problem, consider changing the project priorities, asking for more resources, or requiring overtime to catch up with the schedule. This is another problem area where you may reach a point of no return. If it becomes evident that the team has taken on more than they're capable of, you'll need to be honest and inform the sponsor that the existing team isn't going to be able to complete the project.

Your team members start regularly stating, "I'm almost finished." This is an award-winning line in the Information Technology industry. There is no good way to measure how far along a programming task has progressed, so you have to rely on the lead programmers to judge (by their experience) how close they think they or their team members are to completing the task. The problem comes when you've heard this statement for the past six weeks from the same team member. The only way out of this one is to communicate and stress the importance of honest reporting.

You have too many changes. Too many changes can cause the project to end up very different from what it started out as. Manage changes and stick to the agreed-upon scope of the project, as discussed in the previous section.

You and your team realize that the project should never have been startedin the first place. The objectives are beyond the ability of the project team to perform, the time expectations are unrealistic, or the budget is unrealistic. When you know this up front, inform the sponsor and decline to manage the project if they aren't willing to work with you to correct the problems. If you don't realize this until later, you'll have to document your findings and recommend to the sponsor shutting down the project.

Stay informed of problems and meet them head on when they occur. Remember to keep the sponsor and key stakeholders informed because they will often be able to help you resolve problems or obtain resources that are outside your authority.

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