by Moira Alexander

How to spot signs your project is about to fail

Aug 29, 2016
IT LeadershipIT SkillsProject Management Tools

There are many possible reasons a project is headed for problems. While some are easy to spot and correct, others may signify more deep-rooted issues that can derail even the best-laid plans.

Project management has many facets and anyone of them could derail even the best-laid plans. Recognizing the signs of an impending disaster can give a project manager the “heads up” before it happens. To help you spot the telltale signs, here are some of the more common signs grouped into three key categories.

1. High-level objectives

Missing strategic tie-in: Difficulty easily and clearly tie the project purpose and goals back to company-wide objectives is one of the biggest signals that project needs to be re-evaluated. Forging ahead without having a clear understanding of the project is beneficial to the company is a huge mistake in the making.

No clear motivations for a project: If few people understand or can explain the need for the project, you have an issue. It doesn’t necessarily spell disaster, but if they are not sure why the project was undertaken in the first place makes it difficult during project execution for stakeholders to play their part in a meaningful way. On another note, if the leadership team isn’t clear on why a project was selected, that can most definitely be a recipe for disaster.

Leadership priority issues: If the leadership doesn’t agree on project priorities it can spell huge problems in terms of overextended resources and commitment on the part of employees, time and funding. If their leadership team can’t agree on project priorities, employees can’t be expected to know what the priorities are either.

Too many projects on the go: Even within large organizations, time, resourcing, scheduling and funding is a factor. Overextending any of these can be a sign that leadership may not be collaborating or communicating sufficiently to identify the priorities and the projects required to meet those priorities. This is one of those signs that should sound an alarm.

Constant scope changes: If there’s a never-ending list of scope changes, it signifies requirements may not have been clearly or fully identified or documented. It can also be a sign that stakeholder needs have changed. Either way, it may be time to pump the brakes and figure out the cause of the scope changes before heading for trouble.

Major changes on the 11th hour: When considering the enormous amount of planning, time and effort that goes into project’s, any 11th-hour changes can completely derail a project, especially when we’re talking about major changes. This can be a sign that the planning stage was too light, or requirements were not sufficiently identified. It can also mean stakeholder expectations have changed throughout the project, but, regardless it still should be of significant concern.

2. The Leaders

Project sponsors are absent: Project sponsors are projects champions; they’re necessary to provide the adequate support to project managers and their teams during all stages of project management. If they’re conspicuously absent all the time, when problems arise project leaders have nowhere to turn. This can make even the best PM lose confidence, perhaps impairing his or her performance.

PM lacks self-confidence: If a project manager exhibits a lack of confidence when they walk into a project, it creates a trickle-down effect where project teams lose confidence in the project leader as well. If this trend continues, it makes it extremely difficult for a PM to be effective. The longer this trend continues, the more devastating the impact and project outcomes.

The team lacks confidence in the PM: Sometimes a project manager exhibits confidence, but for reasons outside of that the project team simply doesn’t believe the PM has the abilities or skill to lead them to success. Because people are people, and gossip is a well-known fact in the workplace an issue like this, once discovered, must be dealt with immediately to avoid it spreading like a virus. Make sure to identify the root cause as fast as possible.

Project members don’t like the PM: There will be times when a project manager is highly capable and confident, but due to various factors, not limited to attitude, arrogance, or people skills are not well received by teams or stakeholders. This is also a huge problem for businesses wanting to successfully accomplish project goals. People in these situations tend to develop a “who cares” attitude around project activities.

A PM or key team member leaves during the project: This can be an alarming feeling for teams and stakeholders. All too often it creates confusion around “what’s next” or “now what.” People begin to wonder what happened or did the project manager know something they don’t. More often than not, the real reason(s) are less harmful than what people may be thinking or saying. This can be demoralizing if not handled properly. A PM should avoid leaving during a project unless circumstances dictate it’s necessary and unavoidable. Advance communication is key to alleviate stress and confusion.

3. The people behind the project

Highly disinterested stakeholders: If project stakeholders are disinterested in a project, it can create a contentious environment and make it difficult to accomplish the required work. Gaining buy-in prior to execution is key.

No one shares knowledge: To a great degree, projects rely heavily on knowledge-sharing and collaboration. It can take only one individual who doesn’t believe in sharing information to derail a project completely depending on their role and position. It’s important to identify those individuals and directly address the problem as soon as possible. This is all part of stakeholder buy-in issues.

Other human resources issues: There can be a multitude of other HR-based issues that can negatively impact the project. Some others that are of more concern could be constant conflict, team members who don’t really understand their role, and if the wheels fall off the wagon during every meeting, a PM should be concerned and deal with these right away before they get out of control. While they may not signify immediate disaster, they have the potential to if left unchecked.

Timing issues: When it comes to project management, more often than not, time is a friend. When a project manager just can’t keep to a schedule, or keep others to a schedule for that matter it can be problematic. When there are constant dependency conflicts, and more importantly if the project starts off with an unrealistic timeline this can signify a disaster in the making.

The numbers keep running over: If there’s a constant struggle to get costs under control a project is in jeopardy. Of even more concern may be if a project starts out with an unrealistic budget or if there’s cash flow problem the chances of project success dwindles.

Resource limits: Whether financial, human resource, technology or other types of resources, limitations can make or break the chances of project success. If there’s a constant battle for resources, if everything’s a priority to everyone, if there’s no way to procure the required resources or services, a project may be in jeopardy.

Any of these risk factors mentioned above, in addition to many others, can take a project from beginning straight to disaster if not properly and fully identified and addressed in a timely manner.