Your Project Might Be in Trouble If...
The first half of the project went well, but emerging issues were now threatening success. Decisive executive action was needed, and it wasn’t happening. The project manager drafted an issue paper to communicate concerns and encourage a prompt response, but the only feedback she received were corrections to her grammar—zero questions about the substance.
Exasperated, she tried urgently to arrange meetings with the sponsoring executives, but they were “too busy to connect” for several weeks.
The Project Manager shared this with me, and all I could do was shake my head. It’s hard to predict the future, but patterns are telling. As I start my fifth decade working on projects, primarily in the IT and software development space, I wanted to share some patterns I have observed that suggest a project is in trouble. For fun, I patterned this after comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s famous “You might be a redneck if…” (If you aren’t familiar with Jeff, check YouTube).
Your project might be in trouble if…
- this is the third time the organization has tried this, and the most substantive change in approach is the new project code name
- the response to budget constraints is to save money by laying off the experienced people on the project
- the project executives “don’t have time” to meet with a project manager requesting an urgent meeting for more than 48 hours
- feedback you get on a document outlining project concerns focus exclusively on grammar corrections
- when you tell sponsoring executives that the team is working at an unsustainable pace, you are told, “I guess you have to do a better job of motivating them.”
- when you question whether or not something is in scope, you are told that “we are Agile and need to meet the customer’s needs,” but the budget and delivery schedule remain fixed
- the project manager spends four weeks screwing around with Microsoft Project, and all he has to show for it is a dozen tasks that are poorly defined and have no estimates, no resources, and no dependencies
- the trash can on Monday morning is overflowing with pizza boxes and fast-food containers, AGAIN
- the executive response to project concerns is, “This project is too important to fail!”
- everyone knew that the schedule target would be missed, but they act surprised anyway
- your best resources start coming in wearing their Sunday best clothes and taking long lunches or running errands mid-day
- the quality criteria for releases get lowered from “No known faults” to “We have workarounds in progress for most of the severe errors that cause harm.”
- risk management conversations are prohibited because “We discourage negative thinking around here.”
- management celebrates when senior people leave the project because they can hire two rookies with the salary savings
- managers are worried about the dedication of staff who are “only” working 50 hours per week
These are all things I’ve actually seen or heard on troubled projects—they didn’t end well. No sane person starts a project thinking, “This effort is doomed.” At the beginning, there is generally hope—however misguided—that a project can succeed, or we wouldn’t start at all. Hope is good, but it can be taken too far and become denial. Patterns of denial tell us something.