Signs of a Project Headed for Trouble | TechWell

Signs of a Project Headed for Trouble

Road sign warning of going the wrong way

Projects rarely get in trouble suddenly. More often, the descent into trouble is gradual, and the signs are easy to miss.

One such sign, for example, is a decrease in interest among key participants in the project, whether they are team members, managers, customers, or stakeholders. Another such sign is a decline in team morale, as evidenced by less interaction among team members, less playfulness, or less laughter, relative to what’s been typical for the team.

Related signs that are easy to miss are that team members stop listening to one another and they lie to mask problems they’re facing. When team members habitually lie to each other to conceal that they’re struggling, and project managers lie to customers and their own management about project status, the project is in a downward spiral.

Although the above signs are not easily quantifiable, other signs of a project heading for trouble are readily measurable. One such warning sign, for example, is a small variance in schedule or budget that starts to get bigger, especially if this variance happens early in the project. Other signs that are measurable—and easy to detect even if not measured—include meetings being frequently canceled, absenteeism, and reductions in scope that would not have been considered except to prevent the project from collapsing.

Sometimes, a project seems to be on an even keel, as measured by the fact that it’s on schedule—but it still could be heading for failure. That was the case with a project that was doing fine until the six-month mark, when it somehow fell a week behind schedule. No problem; the team could just speed up a little. That worked, and we were back on schedule. But then there was another slip. Again, no problem. Just skip the customary code review. Back on schedule. Another slip. A bit of overtime. More slips. More overtime. Evenings working from home. Weekends. A developer borrowed from another team just to help out briefly … or maybe for longer.

Through measures the team shouldn’t have had to take, they kept catching up, so no one viewed the project as being headed for trouble—at least, not out loud. But it was introuble, and it wasn’t until they could no longer make up for lost time that they admitted it.

No single sign of a project problem alone means it’s doomed. But if you detect potential signs of possible failure, it would be wise to take steps sooner rather than later to address them and get the project back on track. And if there’s a voice in your head screaming that something doesn’t feel right, listen to it. It’s telling you what you already know.

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