Warning Signs of a Project Headed for Trouble
There are plenty of websites that list best practices for project management. Leery though I am of the use of best practices in general, looking for warning signs that the project is headed for trouble certainly seems like a practice worth following.
One such warning sign, for example, is a small variance in schedule or budget that starts to get bigger, especially if this increase happens early in the project. We often foolishly think we can catch up—and sometimes we can, though usually only with an increasing amount of overtime. But if the variance isn’t addressed quickly, it is unlikely that the project will recover.
Another warning sign is that team morale starts to decline. Of course, team morale can decline for lots of reasons, such as layoffs or poor leadership. These reasons may not be project-specific, but they certainly can affect project progress and quality. Signs of declining morale include an increase in complaints, insubordination, absenteeism, turnover, and decreased enthusiasm. If you detect any of these, a negative impact on the project won’t be far behind.
Similarly subtle signs of a project headed for trouble include lack of interest (people stop showing up at meetings), poor communication (less dialogue within the project team and with stakeholders), and a “no-bad-news” environment (communication isn’t honest about what’s really going on). Signs that are more easily measured include lots of overtime, diversion of resources, and unmet milestones. And then there are the ratios, those financial and other types of metrics that allow managers to measure budgeted time and money vs. money and time actually spent.
A particularly ominous sign is that team members stop listening to one another. Even when teams get along personally, team members don't always listen well to one another. Failure to listen paves the way to a breakdown in coordination and the compromises necessary to move a project forward. At this point, the likely result is a serious state of discord in which teams split into competing factions, and every little thing becomes another source of dissension.
Not all these signs mean the project is doomed to failure. But if you detect any of the signs listed in this story or any of several others—or if there’s a voice in your head shouting at you that something doesn’t feel right—it would be wise to pay attention and to take steps sooner rather than later to reorient the project toward success.
By the way, if none of your projects has ever reached completion, like in Dilbert’s company, that’d be a pretty good warning sign about the prospects for success in the next one.