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Early Warning Signs

Ever seen a project that seems to be doing great for six months or so, and then you come in one Monday morning and find out it’s way off track? The questions and conflicting comments abound:

– “How did it get that way so fast?”
– “I thought John (the project manager) was doing great!”
– “I knew things were too rosy!” etc, etc.

Anyway, you get the picture…

The purpose of this article is to provide the project stakeholders, and the project manager, with some key pointers that indicate a project may be headed for trouble – before it is too late. The fact is, projects seldom go from success to disaster overnight. Most projects are behind schedule from day one! How many projects do you know of that really get going on time, and are where they said they would be one month later?

Starting up a project (getting staff, facilities, agreement on scope, etc.) is a process that is often under-estimated. I believe one of the main reasons for this is failure on the part of the project manager to realize:

a) Just how many other departments and staff outside of his immediate project team are required for start-up; and
b) That his project is not necessarily a top priority for them.

Whatever the reason, many projects are playing catch up from the start. As time goes by the project can fall further and further behind the original (but not always well documented!!) expectations. So really the Friday-to-Monday crash could have been detected (and hopefully avoided) long before it happened.

Early Warning Signs

What are some of the things to look for? Like catching the flu there are some telltale signs. Here are some of the key symptoms that all may not be right with the project.

Does the project have an approved charter?
This is the document that gives formal management approval for the project to proceed. It outlines the scope and identifies key resource requirements. It should be reviewed and approved by all major project stakeholders. Projects proceeding without this key document are very likely to find themselves in trouble later on in the project life cycle.

Does the project have a plan defined in sufficient detail?
When individual tasks on the project schedule are described at too high a level, such as several weeks duration and hundreds of hours of effort, the margin of error is just to great. The industry standard is to have tasks defined to the level where resource assignments are 80 hours or less, and each task duration is less than three weeks. (Of course there are exceptions to this such as ongoing project management and administration tasks).

Are all project deliverables identified in the project schedule? Too often I see project tasks such as “Testing” – 600 hours, 6 weeks duration with no mention of related deliverables such as test strategy and plan, accepted test results, etc.

Is the project team tracking the schedule properly?
Is the project schedule being updated in an accurate fashion that clearly reflects actual progress made? Earned Value is a tremendously useful tool for measuring true progress and predicting future project performance. It should be used whenever possible. At the very least the project schedule should be maintained regularly with input from the team members.

Missed or poor quality deliverables:
Not all deliverables on a project are equally important, but if the team is consistently missing deadlines on scheduled deliverables, then take a closer look at the reasons why.

Quality issues are another sign that things may be going wrong. If your QA team finds standards are not being followed, or methodology steps are being skipped, this could be another reason things are slipping out of control.

Morale issues:
A dead give-away that a project could be headed for trouble, is staff morale problems. Are people complaining about poor conditions, constant overtime, the project manager? These are all symptoms that all is not well on the team. If not corrected, they can send the project into a tailspin in short order.

Lack of communications from the team:
Are meeting minutes published regularly and distributed to key stakeholders? Is a concise progress report, containing quantifiable information and variance explanations being produced? When the project team is silent, again this is usually a warning sign.

Avoid the Problems

Prevention is better than cure! As the project manager you need to do a self-assessment of your project on a regular basis. Take a step back, and pretend someone else is running the project. Your job is to provide a QA review. Ask the following questions:

  • Do stakeholders, team members and the project manager agree completely on the project scope?
  • Are scope changes documented? (Is a formal Change Control process in place?)
  • Has the team identified all project deliverables? (At least for the current phase of the project life cycle)
  • Do you have the right number and type of resources on the team?
  • Are team member roles and responsibilities clearly defined and understood?
  • Does the project team meet on a regular basis?
  • Are project tasks defined in sufficient detail so progress can be tracked accurately?
  • Is the project schedule updated regularly?
  • Is a progress report produced for key stakeholders on a regular basis?
  • Are project issues documented and tracked? Is there an escalation process in place?

If you answered “No” to any of these, you need to ask yourself why. If necessary correct the oversight and make sure the project stays on track. Don’t wait for the project sponsor to ask, “What’s going on”?

Copyright © Mike Stapenhurst 2008

Mike Stapenhurst, PMP, is an experienced Project Manager and Information Technology consultant of more than 20 years, with a successful track record managing IT projects. He graduated from Concordia University in Montreal with a Summa Cum Laude degree in Commerce. He has worked in several sectors, including insurance companies, government departments, and financial institutions. Mike currently works as an independent project management consultant, specializing in project assessment and PM coaching. He can be reached at [email protected] or 506-454-2716.

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