My colleagues and I talk a lot about failing projects and the damage control associated with projects in trouble. I don’t think it’s a question of project manager skill, the team’s ability to execute or even stakeholder involvement with some projects—even if you do everything right, sometimes projects struggle. With that in mind, here are 9 warning signs that your project might be in trouble. Some are difficult to put a metric to, while others are pretty easy to measure and identify.
Some of the earliest warning signs are more difficult to measure and require us to be watching what’s happening on the team and be prepared to take action:
- Lack of Interest: Whether it’s a lack of interest within the project team or among the project stakeholders, it’s often demonstrated by people not showing up for meetings, a lack of active participation and feedback, or a poorly organized user base. This is an early warning sign of a project in trouble.
- Poor Communication: If nobody is communicating, including stakeholders, team members and end users, there could be a problem.
- Lack of Velocity: Projects should always be moving forward. The best way to keep a good velocity is to divide your project into small deliverables at frequent intervals. If the project isn’t moving forward, it’s likely in trouble.
- 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 first and ask questions later. If there isn’t an environment where the communication is honest about “reality”, projects tend to fail.
You don’t need to depend on some of the intangible signs that a project is in trouble, there are also a number of easily measurable signs:
- 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.)
- 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 people properly, a few hours here and there on a troubled project can quickly add up and cascade down, endangering healthy projects.
- 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 communication you receive from project teams.
- 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.
- 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 struggling, it’s a huge warning sign of danger ahead.
Of course, warning signs are not the harbinger of doom, they are just warning signs that a project might be in trouble. Depending on how your organization handles project-based work, the right project management tools can help identify potential problems early, when there’s still time to do something about them.
If you’d like to read more about some of the early warning signs to a struggling project, Caffeine, Late Nights and Failing Projects might be a good place to start.