Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Portents of project failure

with 3 comments

Most project managers have had to deal with a failed project or two. Unfortunately, by the time it is recognised that a project is in trouble, it is often too late to do anything about it.  Many project failures, however, are presaged by other, less serious problems. It is useful to keep an eye out for these so that one can take action to prevent subsequent disaster. To use a medical analogy, it is best to to identify sick projects before they become terminally ill. As doctors say : the earlier the diagnosis, the better the prognosis.

So here they are,  six symptoms of sick projects (in no particular order):

  • Low team morale: Team members complaining that things are out of control and that they can’t cope is a sure sign of trouble ahead. Solution: get to the root cause of the problem. Figure out why they think “things are out of control” or “they can’t cope”. You need to find the underlying cause for their angst before you can address it.
  • Chronic buck-passing:  A typical case of this might be where a team member says, “I coudn’t finish on time because X didn’t give me what he was supposed to last week.” Project roles and responsibilities should be defined in the plan, and I’m assuming that this is the case (if not you have bigger problems!).  In a  situation where responsibilities are defined, buck-passing is usually a consequence of communication breakdown across a project interface.  This has to be handled by smoothing out the obstacles to communication.
  • Sponsor loses interest (or worse, quits!): A sponsor quitting is a situation that a project manager can’t do much about, except be aware it might (will!) impact the project. Loss of interest, on the other hand, could mean that the business no longer considers the project important. Whatever the reason, it is probably best to speak to the sponsor to find out more.
  • Chronic distractions: This is possibly the most common one I’ve come across. It typically happens in corporate environments where team members are temporarily “loaned out” to the project team. The demands of their regular jobs still remain and consequently they’re continually pulled away to do non-project tasks. The way to handle this is to speak to the relevant managers, reminding them of the importance of the project and their original commitment to it. As a last resort, one might need to involve the sponsor. The preferred option, however, is to settle the issue at the level of the manager.
  • No one in-charge:  This is really a variant of the previous point, but is important enough to stand on its own. It typically happens when the project manager is a part-timer who has to focus on his or her real job whilst (additionally) looking after the project.  Although such an arrangment might work for a small project with limited scope,  it will not do for a project of any decent size.  It still surprises me how many important projects (such as ERP implementations) are run by part-timers.  Although the people involved do their best,  part-time attention is rarely enough to stay on top of the complexity of the project.
    I should also add that this can also happen when a project manager is incompetent!. This, however, is much rarer as such folks tend to get weeded out of the profession before they get to handle a big project.
    In either case the solution is to get management to understand that (competent!)  full time attention is necessary for project success.
  • Lack of familiarity with technology or processes (coupled with the lack of external help): This one is common enough. I’ve seen several frustrated project teams struggle to familiarise themselves with an unfamiliar technology whilst attempting to use it in a project. The time to a learn a new skill is before the project. It’s too late to throw people into training after the project starts; they need to learn and practise the technology well before that. If your team doesn’t have the necessary skills,  for heaven’s sake get help from outside. Else you’ll kill morale along with the project.
To sum up, projects rarely fail without warning. It is helpful to keep an eye out for signs that a project is heading south, and to act on these before it’s too late.  To this end, I’ve listed a few of the symptoms of sick projects. I’d welcome your contributions to the list via your comments.

Written by K

February 21, 2008 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Project Management

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks and good stuff.

    I like the analogy of early spotting. Experience tells me that the same goes with decision making failure – we don’t tend to make bad decisions (by and large), rather we tend tend to make the right decisions much later than we could have first made them.

    In our work at People Deliver Projects Ltd, we have surveyed getting on for 200 project and programme managers and asked what THEY think are the causes of failure (and success)

    On the big question…is it about: a) the pm process, b) people or c) the technology, 86% said “people”. Not surprising outcome, but interesting that the number is so BIG. This would suggest that your last item on technology/processes, is the least significant. We find that these are real problems, but that people with strong personal ownership, learn these things and solve the issues.

    We dig deeper into these broad themes, and your bloggers are welcome to get a copy of our survey report, which we have published and is available from our web-site http://www.peopledeliverprojects.com


    andy taylor

    February 21, 2008 at 10:55 pm

  2. Thanks for your comments.

    I absolutely agree with you that people problems are, by far, the most important cause of project failure. In fact, I’d argue that my point on technology / process is actually an issue of management (i.e. people) failing to recognise and allow for certain lacunae within their teams. It is really a people problem, not one of technology.

    I’ve visited your site. Very interesting! Your organisation seems to be one of the few focused on the people side of project management. It would be great if you could share some of your team’s experience through articles published on your site.

    All the best!


    February 23, 2008 at 12:34 pm

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