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How to tell if a project is in trouble: Part II the quick casual way

Posted by Ammar Mango on March 16, 2013

When it comes to analyzing the health of a project, there is a structured way, and a quick casual way.  You always want to go with a structured approach.  However, that is not always possible.  Then you have to go with a casual quick way to get you the indications you need about the health of the project.

In Part I: I already discussed the structured way of checking on a project.  In this part (Part II) I will focus on the casual quick way, when you do not have access to enough data and information to go on.  Luckily there are always tell-tale signs that something is wrong on the project.  Here are a few of these signs.

– If the project manager and or team members are always too busy to talk to anyone.  This is a sign of not wanting to face reality. When the project manager and  / or team members “hide in a cave” refusing to talk to anyone and getting irritated by requests for updates, the project is for sure in trouble.

– When the delivery is late and everybody is saying that we are “almost done” and it is a matter of a few days.  Usually the next line is “SURPRISE: we cannot deliver.”  Sometimes the line does not come from the project manager.  He goes  on a surprise vacation and stops answering phone calls.

– If blame game is taking priority over real progress.  This is where everyone is trying to document and create evidence that they have done their part on the project and it is someone else’s fault that things are not going well.  Sometimes this is done through emails with unclear meaning or goal, but somewhere in there is a line that will be used to prove that ” I already told you that in my email.” Sometimes these emails are started in a very tame neutral voice to hide the “bombs” hidden somewhere in the middle of the email, in the longest paragraph that most will not read.

– If the project plan is based on optimistic estimates that were given by managers who fix the estimates to match the needed deadline, without any attention to reality.  Team buy-in is lost on these estimates, but the team do not say anything for fear of retaliation from management, so they keep their head down and work, knowing they cannot meet the deadline.

– When there is no such thing as a “project team.” Different employees from different departments are working on tasks that have no integration.  It is just a task on some project and when it is done there will be another task on another project.  The employees are working in a department, focusing on the operational aspect of what they do.  No team spirit.  No project integration.  The project manager is looked at as the “nagging figure” that annoys us about finishing faster.  The department manager is looked at as the protector who protects us from the project manager and his unrealistic requests.

– If the project manager is not communicating, and project plans, issues and risks are kept in a drawer at his or her desk, instead of communicating with stakeholders.  When project manager avoids the confrontation and emails these issues and risks and assumes he or she did their duty by sending them and it is up to others to respond.  If they do not then it is not the project manager’s problem.

– If projects are used as a political platform to serve agendas like: “this department is not doing its job,” or even worse: “I am indispensable for the organization,” and to prove someone to be wrong. This usually leads to ethics and professionalism becoming lip service, but project stakeholders have no problem lying, hiding the truth, or acting in an unprofessional fashion.

– If management throws the project at the project manager and turns its back assuming that everything is fine, just because they are not hearing from the project manager.  They follow the wrong rule of “no news is good news.” Usually on projects it is the exact opposite.  Silence is a sign of trouble.  Management must challenge the project manager and team to “show” progress and how the project is proceeding towards providing intended value.  Also, management must provide the project manager with the necessary support especially with dealing with issues and risks that are outside the responsibilities or control of the project manager.

Rhetoric: When project correspondence looks like a political speech, talking about the greatness of manager X or the honor of organization Y then you can be sure that the project is in deep trouble.  If we exalt the project and its stakeholders so much , and they are so perfect, then how can we dare bring to anybody’s attention the potential problems the project might face or the shortcomings of the work done to date?

– When people are afraid to make mistakes and all they care about is not to do anything wrong.  If you are not making mistakes then you are not working.  But Most would rather not do any work rather than get blamed for mistakes they made.  This is a management problem, not team members problem.  If management does not create an atmosphere where team members are comfortable making mistakes, then no difficult project or undertaking will ever be tackled with enough rigor to succeed.


One Response to “How to tell if a project is in trouble: Part II the quick casual way”

  1. Randa Bustami said


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