Maybe we are all reluctant to accept that our project might be failing but with high project failure rates in many industry sectors we should make sure we are able to spot the main warning signs. And then act on them rather bury our heads in the sand and hope it will “be alright on the night”. That approach will never lead to a successful project or a successful career in project management.
Just because things might not be going to plan doesn’t mean a project is doomed – managing problems and risks is all part and parcel of a project manager’s role and a risk management plan should be in place that will help to mitigate the very risks that might be causing problems. If a risk plan has not been prepared, don’t worry it is rarely too late to review the real and potential risks that might be threatening your project and to deal with them effectively. Problems that materialise in a project, whether expected or not, are inevitable in many industries and with a controlled approach they can usually be mitigated.
The very fact that problems so often arise in IT projects, for instance, is what led, at the beginning of this century, to the creation of the Agile Manifesto, with its values and principles designed to help project managers work constructively to solve problems rather than either being defeated by them or trying to ignore them. An agile approach recognises that many projects are simply unsuited to the traditional “waterfall” approach and offers an alternative where deliveries are made in small stages allowing for user feedback to be incorporated into the next stage. Increasingly both waterfall and agile methods are recognised as appropriate for different types of projects and in some cases they are being combined on a single project. All projects have their ups and downs so it is important to remain optimistic in the low periods and remember that things will change.
It is reassuring that the formalisation of project management methodologies over the past 20 years has led to a significant improvement in project success rates. Increased used of the internet has also helped by making status reports quickly and easily available so that problems don’t drag on undetected for too long.
So what are the warning signs of a project that could be destined for failure? If your know how to spot these and act on them you already have the means to turn a potential disaster into a success. Warning signs of pending trouble are usually relatively easy to spot – here are some typical ones:
1. Lack of Buy-In
When those working on a project have been pressured into becoming involved they will never be fully committed to its success and will not give 100% of their time or energy to the project.
2. Poor Communication
Communication takes many forms; there are the informal team discussions, regular meetings, emails, phone calls and various written reports and other documentation. If any of these areas are lacking then there is likely to be a problem looming.
3. No Visible Progress
If it is not possible to see what has been achieved to date then it is difficult to convince stakeholders and the team that success is possible. A lack of visible progress (or “velocity” in Agile project management) is de-moralising for everyone involved.
4. Long Hours
If the project team are having to put in long hours just to stay on top of the scheduled activities then this is a classic indicator that all is not well. Either the original estimates were badly wrong or the scale and scope of the work was not clear.
5. Milestones Missed
Milestones should deliver manageable chunks of work to the customer on a frequent basis. If this is not being done, or the deliverables cannot be tested by the customer, there is no opportunity to get feedback for the next phase to know the project is on the right track.
6. Changing Scope
Every project’s nightmare is scope creep – adding to the requirements during the project – it is usually an indication that requirements were not fully documented or the customer did not understand the aim of the project. But often a more serious warning sign is when features are being removed from scope and the end-product is being scaled back.
Remember that warning signs such as these give you the opportunity to rescue a project from failure so should not be ignored but treated as part of the project management process. By looking out for warning signs and using your experience and personal skills (supplemented with the right project management courses) a project manager can avoid project failure.
Author: Michelle Symonds