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How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts


Projects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it?

Project failures — even Skip to the Details:
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project disasters — are much more common than most of us realize, because most failures are concealed by the facts that the project was completed, and that it accomplished more or less what we thought it would. The projects that fail utterly, and end in cancellation, are the obvious disasters. But most troubled projects are hidden. Finding them while there's still time to avert the trouble, and then preventing trouble or extricating these projects from trouble, can make a big difference in organizational performance.

Hidden disasters were disasters financially, because they ran over budget, or they were completed late, or both. Other disasters perhaps were completed on time and on budget, but only at the expense of other projects, which were stripped of talent at critical times. And some disasters were on time and on budget, but never led to the market success they originally promised.

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsHow to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts tells you how to identify disasters — both hidden and obvious — before they become disasters. Written specifically for the executive and senior manager, it tells you how to read a project, to determine what secrets might lie beneath its tranquil surface. Armed with these techniques you not only can prevent projects from becoming disasters themselves, but you can also prevent projects from wrecking your organization.

Most important, you'll be able to identify troubled projects while there is still time to fix them or cancel them with minimal waste of resources.

Who can benefit

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts addresses a broad readership:

  • Organizational leaders who want to set organizational policy to maximize the success of all projects
  • Senior managers who want to guide sponsors and leaders of project teams within their organizations
  • Sponsors of projects who want better results faster
  • Managers of project managers

What you do with it depends on your role in your organization. Here are just a few ideas:

Organizational leaders
Use the tips book as part of a program for enhancing your organization's sophistication with respect to project disasters. Pick and choose ideas, add your own insights, and examine organizational policy for ways to tighten project creation and management practice, and for ways to enhance and focus monitoring. Or have us customize the tips book to your organization to create training and reference materials for executives, senior managers, sponsors, auditors and project managers.
Senior managers
Whether managing a crisis or creating a risk management plan, understanding the problems and pitfalls of the project management helps you deliver a successful project or operate with enhanced predictability. By focusing your attention on the right projects, early in the unfolding of failure, you can intervene when needed and only when needed.
Sponsors of projects
Sponsors are uniquely positioned either to create disaster or to prevent it. They act as an important part of the interface between the project and and the rest of the organization, arranging for resources, championing the project, and curtailing project excesses. Finding the balance is critical, and this tips book provides essential guidance.
Managers of project managers
Managers of project managers, or leads of project management offices, can also benefit from How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts. They can advise project managers about high-risk practices; advise senior managers about policy that supports risk reduction; and help devise reporting mechanisms to focus monitoring and auditing activities to increase risk identification efficiency.

Some sample tips

Here are some sample tips.

Be alert when the budget for contingencies was driven down during initial negotiations
If the project manager or risk manager presented a budget for contingencies, and that budget was driven down in negotiations with the sponsor, the customer, Marketing, Sales, or management, take care. It's possible that the project manager or risk manager yielded under the weight of superior political clout. The true cost of those contingencies is probably closer to the proposed number than it is to the number that emerged from negotiations.
To limit repetitions of this sort of thing, collect data about negotiations. Let everyone know that it's OK to negotiate, and it's OK to make these adjustments, but the adjustments must be included in a Negotiation Report. That alone might deter some from using political clout to arrive at unrealistic results.
You can then create software to automatically alert internal "troubled project monitors" to flag the project, even in cases where deterrence isn't achieved.
Beware projects with a high incidence of split assignments
An individual has a split assignment when he or she is working on two or more projects, and is responsible to two or more different project leads. If this practice is widespread in your organization, it could mean that there are too many projects active at once. It could also mean that there is a shortage of people with particular skills. In either case, the projects that share people are at risk, for three reasons.
First, if trouble arises in one project, in the area covered by the split team member, the other project(s) will temporarily have to make do with a reduced level of services of the split team member. This might work out, but there is a finite chance that trouble will hit more than one of these projects simultaneously.
Second, it's unlikely that the project leads who share team members have enough schedule control or flexibility to avoid contending for the split team members simultaneously. Even if they do have such flexibility, they have to discuss and compare schedules, which takes time that many don't want to use, given the low likelihood of a good outcome.
Finally, split assignments are usually arranged so that the split person's total effort summed over all projects is 100%. But that's unrealistic. The splitting itself costs time. A good rule of thumb is 5% per project. Thus, a person shared by two projects is only 90% available.
And split assignments have subtle effects on the level of trust in the organization — they tend to erode trust. In projects where trust is very important (example: dispersed or virtual teams), this effect can create both unrecognized cost and unanticipated risk to the project.
More info on split assignments.
Be alert to financial trouble at bet-the-ranch suppliers
When a project relies on elements delivered through an outsource arrangement, and when the vendor is severely extended and in trouble, that project must be considered at risk, even if all is well in terms of schedule and budget. Project leads who do not monitor the financial health of such vendors are flying blind and without instruments.
When a project contracts with a vendor, and when that project is a stretch for that vendor, the situation calls for an elevated level of risk monitoring by the project lead and sponsor. Have the project lead set an appropriate Google Alert for the supplier, key locations for that supplier, and all key personnel of that supplier.

Table of contents

Here's a chapter-by-chapter summary of what you'll find in this book.

Click the folder icons to reveal (or hide) individual chapter content summaries, or:

  • 1Two organizational heavyweights are at war
  • 2The denial/compliance cycle
  • 3The current project lead didn't devise the current project plan
  • 4Early scope creep
  • 5The usual designated winners are in charge
  • 6Emigration of designated winners
  • 7Sponsor anxiety
  • 8Project vision statement addresses the wrong audience
  • 9Project plan contains no definition of "we're in trouble"
  • 10The requirements were supposed to be stable by now, but they aren't
  • 11Confused team meetings
  • 12Risk plan fossilization
  • 13Lack of consensus about the risk plan
  • 14Lip service to the open issues list
  • 15Long gaps between scheduled milestones
  • 16Limited use of checklists
  • 17Deadlines are redefined only after they're obviously impossible
  • 18People write progress reports, but rarely are they read
  • 19Late downscoping
  • 20Intraproject communication is ineffective
  • 21Upward trend (or spike) in cell phone minutes
  • 22A dispersed project has tasks that span site boundaries
  • 23Critical documents weren't professionally translated for offshore units
  • 24A dispersed project team lacks a formal communications plan
  • 25Lack of a defined process for project turnarounds
  • 26Failure to conduct retrospectives
  • 27Lack of coordination between project teams and internal service departments
  • 28We exported onto the project the consequences of executive and board room delays
  • 29The organization has undertaken process change without replanning projects
  • 30The project team has outdated or inadequate equipment and tools
  • 31We changed some of the tools they use without replanning the project
  • 32The budget for contingencies was driven down
  • 33The schedule assumes full-time availability of all team members
  • 34The schedule assumes overtime
  • 35High incidence of split assignments
  • 36Gross asymmetry in a critical split assignment
  • 37The project lead has three or more projects to lead
  • 38The project plan was overconstrained
  • 39Travel budgets were cut below what a dispersed project originally proposed
  • 40For bet-the-ranch projects, unexpected defection of cognizant management
  • 41Financial trouble of bet-the-ranch suppliers
  • 42The contract is under renegotiation
  • 43The project manager is a contractor
  • 44The project manager is formally a hands-on project manager
  • 45The project manager isn't hands-on, but has only hands-on experience
  • 46The principal champion is one of the developers
  • 47The schedule was specified mostly as a cost control device
  • 48The schedule was determined by the need for revenue
  • 49The sponsor resists stabilizing the requirements
  • 50The customer doesn't acknowledge the need for rational project management
  • 51A pattern of resource yanking
  • 52The price was quoted before the requirements were defined
  • 53The price was quoted without a real estimate
  • 54The price quoted was significantly less than the project manager's estimate
  • 55The customer resists participation in necessary decisions
  • 56Client staff argue among themselves during meetings
  • 57Relationships between client leadership and client staff are breaking down
  • 58Turnover in the client project lead position
  • 59Customer demands modification (or abandonment) of your customary working process
  • 60Customer initiates contract amendment
  • 61Customer is taking longer and longer to pay invoices
  • 62The high priests are the only ones with a clue
  • 63Project meeting absenteeism
  • 64Late attendance at meetings or early departures
  • 65Sudden increase in meetings centered around one particular subtask
  • 66Overtime is mandatory
  • 67Burnout
  • 68Red flags on the morale flagpole
  • 69High nose count of elephants in the room
  • 70Difficulty finding volunteers
  • 71Sudden increase (or steady uptrend) in emigration per capita
  • 72High density of warm bodies
  • 73Closely held information
  • 74Downside surprises
  • 75They didn't (don't) celebrate their successes
  • 76Passion deficit at the top
  • 77Nobody answers the doorbell
  • 78Sudden drop in the ratio of bad news to good
  • 79A trend of increasing (or a spike in) vending machine sales per capita
  • 80A trend of increasing (or a spike in) off-hours headcount
  • 81Quality Assurance reports to the same organization that does the work
  • 82The testing cycle has been shortened
  • 83See no evil
  • 84Defect denial
  • 85Failure to categorize defects
  • 86Patterns of defect reclassification
  • 87Zero defects

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