What are the danger signs for a project going south? Including the ones you should have recognized? These may sound all too familiar.
We’ve all been there: The project went horribly wrong. Neither the stakeholders nor the creative team is happy with the application or product – if it ever did ship. You wish you could erase the experience from your resume. Perhaps it would look better if you said you spent that year playing piano in a house of ill repute?
With 20-20 hindsight, you realize that the signs were there all along, but you didn’t recognize them. Or, if you’re more experienced, you have learned to recognize the danger signs, and you know when it’s time to (a) fix them or (b) bail.
I want to save other project managers and team members from such anguish. So I asked people to share how they recognized when a project was in trouble.
Sometimes the sign means, “This shows we’re in trouble, but it can be fixed” rather than, “We’re about to explode. Quit now!” Good luck with determining which is which.
But, if you’ll forgive a word from our sponsor, perhaps getting project management training can help you avoid a few of these emergencies, or at least recognize trouble before it’s too late for the team — or your own career.
Meeting behavior often is a clue.
- Attendance drops at your meetings. Everyone is busy elsewhere. Or busy with their cell phones.
- The CEO always comes late for meetings. Her first action is to veto every decision made before she arrived.
- No regular project meetings are held. Or they’re regularly canceled, usually at the last moment.
A representative example:
A visit from the Big Brass wasn’t bad news. A visit from our team leads wasn’t bad news. But if the middle manager between those two called a meeting? It was time to bend over, grab our ankles, and brace for impact.
Communication goes dark
- You send status updates or ask questions and get no response. (This is not a fatal sign, but you should get to the bottom of it quickly.)
- Your most critical knowledge workers suddenly start taking on other work for other projects.
- Travel budgets are cancelled or put on hold, even for in-person team meetings that directly affect the project progress.
A representative example:
“I once had a senior executive at a Global 50 company show me her calendar while we were trying to schedule a project kickoff meeting. She had one half hour that was not booked for the entire week – including lunches. When we paged forward to the following week it was exactly the same. If the key stakeholders aren’t willing to make time to kick off the project in the first place, they’ll never give it the priority required. Run!”
Deadlines and goals shift, rarely concurrently.
- The team misses deadlines repeatedly. They have many good explanations.
- There are constant changes in a project’s direction. Worse: Those changes aren’t shared adequately with the people doing the actual work.
- The product manager tells you after a milestone or two that this is not what he wanted.
- Requirements change rapidly and suddenly. Especially when that means all the work you’ve done is abandoned.
- The team missed the first milestone and did not adjust future milestones.
- No decision ever sticks.
- Your work is put on hold temporarily “while we re-prioritize.”
Announcement of new initiatives such as “rapid stabilization programmes” for the project, extra contractors piling on board to rapidly push the train wreck through, doubling of budgets.
The project champion is gone
- The only manager anyone respects – the catalyst – quits and takes a job elsewhere. Expect people to leave in waves, thereafter.
- You can’t attract and keep star players, even early in the project.
- The client starts looking for other work.
- You find yourself reporting to someone lower in the hierarchy than the original client.
Getting sign-offs for work completed seems impossible. Or the client starts insisting on other non-specified work in addition to your existing completion points. Or the client wants personal freebees as part of the project.
Expert advice is ignored
- The people in charge refuse to listen to problems. Instead, they ignore the issue and march ahead anyway.
- The product doesn’t even begin to work, but Sales is lining up buyers for it.
- You are told, “You’re not being a team player” when you point out the bug count is still increasing and functionality is incomplete, after the project already had one deadline extension.
- Someone says with a straight face, “We’ll handle 100% of testing through automation.” Especially if automation isn’t budgeted into the delivery timeline. Doubly so when they’ve never delivered a project tested that way. Tripled when they offload the automation to someone outside of planning and development.
“I visited the Chief Architect directly, and told him my concern. He listened politely, thanked me, and I left. About an hour later, my boss came to my desk and asked, ‘What did you just do?’ I briefly explained the meeting, and he said, ‘You don’t do that here! You need to go through channels.’ (I’d mentioned the technical problem to him and another manager days earlier, and neither one had gotten back to me.) The boss got angry with me and basically told me to keep my mouth shut about things that I didn’t have permission to discuss. … It looked to me like they were more concerned with ‘following protocol’ than whether the information was useful or not.” The product never shipped, and the key technical problem was the one reported.
Decisions are made for political reasons, not project success
- Management begins to micromanage engineering decisions based on business decisions rather than engineering decisions, such as choosing components based on vendor agreements rather than suitability to task.
- You realize the project’s milestones are dependent on people external to the project who have no motivation to help your project. These people may not have ill intent; they are busy putting out their own fires or your project completion does not reflect any glory on them. But it means all your dates are fantasy at best, pretty lies at worst.
- The sponsor insists upon speed, but won’t take the time for proper planning, explaining, “We have to get started right away.”
The project sponsor insists upon defining the solution instead of the objectives: “Early in my career, I was tasked with implementing a pre-identified software package. It was a terrible solution; sales dropped over 40% upon deployment. It required another 6 months to identify the correct solution, sell it over the objections of certain parties, and deploy it.”
And finally, the hard-to-classify
- A competitor announces a new product that squashes yours.
- The client is late paying… twice in a row.
I’m sure you’ve had your own moments when you realized the project was doomed. Share them with us on Twitter @CertWise and @estherschindler – so we all can commiserate.
And to learn what to do when you encounter a problem, perhaps you might bone up on the project management fundamentals or consider an online training course to better prepare you for the challenges.
- You’re Interviewing Candidates for a Project Manager Job. What Do You Ask? - July 5, 2016
- 31 Ways to Know Your Project is Doomed - May 23, 2016
- Would You Fire This Person? - April 26, 2016