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Watch that Basket-Seven Ways to Identify Troubled Projects

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Though the traditional advice is “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” the celebrated author Mark Twain is famous for saying, “…put all of your eggs in one basket and — WATCH THAT BASKET.”

Whether you’re a an entrepreneur leading a small business , a C-Level executive (CEO/CFO/CIO/CTO) at a mid-sized business, the head of the Project Management Office (PMO), or a business manager watching out for your department, you are often stuck in the position of having to “watch that basket” with your most critical projects.

Even worse, many times you’re never truly sure if one of your key projects is in trouble until it’s too late.

Fortunately, there are some signs that can help you identify a troubled project early, so that you can intervene and put it back on track. I polled our project recovery services specialists at Cedar Point Consulting, and we thought of seven effective ways to identify a troubled project:

  1. Perpetual Green Lights, Little Activity. Many of us are familiar with the approach of labeling projects green when they are on schedule and budget; yellow when the project is falling behind; and red when the project is far behind and/or over-budget. Perhaps your key project has been reporting green for the last three months, but oddly there’s been very little activity related to the project. This is probably a good signal that the project is actually in trouble.
  2. Lot’s of TBD’s. Effective risk and issue management are critical to the success of most projects, yet they are often ignored. If your key project is well past the early stages, but is reporting back a lot of TBD’s (to be determined) in the “resolution” column for risks and issues, then it’s probably a troubled project, even when the schedule doesn’t show it.
  3. Avoiders. The leader in charge of your key project may be a formal project manager or a manager of a business line, but regardless of who they are, you are getting the unsettling feeling that they are avoiding you. Perhaps they are missing at meetings, they’re head the other way down the hall when they see you, they’re not returning phone calls, or they’re not providing status reports. Unless you have a problem bathing, the project leader is likely avoiding you because the project is in trouble.
  4. Troubling Trends. Experienced project managers are familiar in using techniques like earned value management (EVM) to identify project progress by comparing actual to planned results for work completed, costs incurred and time spent. Though you may not be using EVM on your projects, you can watch for dramatic increases or drops in spending, dramatic changes to the work being delivered or sudden changes to schedule with no new schedule dates. In many cases, your key project is in a free-fall.
  5. Non-Progress Reports. You’re wise, so you have asked your project manager to provide status reports on a weekly basis. However, they’re more like “Non-Progress” reports than progress reports because no progress has been made. In particular, if you have received two weekly status reports where no progress has been made, you’re well on your way to having a troubled project on your hands, if you don’t already.
  6. Inability to Show Tangible Results. Well in to your project timeline and knowing that interim reviews are a good idea, you ask for a review or demonstration of work completed thus far. However, your review meeting is repeatedly delayed and rescheduled, sometimes by a few days and sometimes by weeks. Even worse, you’ve tried a quick visit by the desk of the project leader and it resulted in the person shoving documents in their desk instead of sitting with you to review tangible results. If so, this is likely a troubled project.
  7. Spidey Senses Tingling. Like Peter Parker in the Spiderman comic book series, you know which projects are highest risk and every time the subject of your key project comes up, it sets your spidey senses tingling, though you’re not certain why. While I’m a big believer in science over emotion, there is surely something very scientific that you’re reading so trust your instincts. Your likely to find something amazingly like trouble in your key project.

Of course, identifying a troubled project is one thing, but recovering that project is a completely different challenge. I provided some tips to recover troubled projects in a previous article that may be of help.

However, particularly if you don’t have experience recovering troubled projects and the stakes are high, it might be time to consider getting some help.  Our firm provides project recovery services and we’re proud of our success rate, but other competent firms do, as well.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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From Chaos to Crisis to Calm – Nine Tips to Recover a Troubled Project

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Brendan Moore, a fellow Principal at Cedar Point Consulting, recently reminded me that, “You can’t manage chaos, but you can manage a crisis.” These are very wise words, but they reminded me of the early stages of a trouble project — one which is far behind schedule, well over budget, not delivering results, or all of the above.  If anything, a troubled project is chaos waiting for a strong leader to transition it to crisis, and then ultimately to calm.

Whether you’re a C-level executive, an entrepreneur or a project manager, you may not have encountered very many troubled projects in your career, so you may not be familiar with how to transition from chaos, to crisis, and finally to calm. We consultants are often brought in to deal with just such problems, so I have a few tips that should help:

  1. Don’t Panic! Douglas Adams references aside, you may have just learned that a key project is in trouble, but it’s important that you not panic. First of all, panic spreads, so you create chaos from crisis, and it won’t be long before your co-workers and your subordinates are panicked, too.Second, panicked people don’t reason effectively – they make “fight-or-flight” decisions instead of rational ones, so you’re far more likely to make a bad decision or push others to do so.
  2. Be Methodical. At Cedar Point Consulting, we have a 5-step process that we follow to recover projects – Review, Recommend, Respond, Transition, Close. While this is not the only way to recover a project, it does consistently work – by step three, the project is making progress once again. Regardless of the technique or methodology that you choose, don’t attempt to solve the project’s problems until you have an understanding of their causes. Do take measures to stop the bleeding, until you’ve effectively identified root causes.
  3. Read the Tea Leaves. Whether well run or not, nearly all projects have documents that tell you where the weaknesses are and whether they are being managed well. At minimum, even the smallest project should follow a standardized process ( project methodology); a charter (with a project goal); a project plan that includes a schedule, a budget, and assigned staff; regular meeting minutes and regular status reports. If these exist, review them to assess where problems are occurring. If they don’t, find out why.
  4. Be From Missouri (“Show Me”). Reading current project documents is a good start, but what if someone is fudging the numbers or painting a rosier picture than reality? For select documents, like staff hours, project schedule and project budget, confirm that they are reasonably accurate independently. Which brings us to the next tip…
  5. Use an Independent Third Party. Whether you hire a consultant or have someone in another part of your business lead your project recovery effort, they should be an independent third party. Having a friend of the Project Manager, the Project Manager’s immediate superior or one of their subordinates jump in to help is unlikely to be successful.
  6. Change Leadership or Change Process. At the most basic level, projects most often fail because either the project manager is not up to the task or the project management process is preventing them from succeeding. A good project manager controls time, scope, cost and quality on a project. If they don’t control at least two of these and influence all four, then they are likely to fail. Conversely, if they control all of these but the projects headed off a cliff, you probably need to switch project leadership.
  7. Increase Communication. When you’re trying to identify problems with a project, it helps to increase communication within the team. Schedule and require participation in regular meetings – daily, if necessary, like Stand-ups or Daily Scrums. Finally, increase the frequency of status reports to key parties, such as the client, the sponsor and key stakeholders, even if the reporting is informal.
  8. To Thine Own Self be True. There’s always a need for optimism in every situation, but good leaders are also honest to themselves and to others about the current state of a project. Depending upon how far behind the project truly is, consider reducing scope or resetting the schedule. Failing to do so may doom the project and the project team to yet another failure – one from which they may not recover.
  9. Start Small, Review Frequently.  After you’ve planned your recovery, be sure to start with small deliverables and shorter milestones, reviewing the project’s progress frequently to make sure the conservative short term goals are being met. While this is not normally the best approach with a project, starting small enables the team members to practice working together as a team before they have to tackle the larger, more challenging deliverables of the project.

The list above isn’t a comprehensive recipe for solving all the problems of a troubled project or for complete recovery, but it is a good start.  In a subsequent post, I’ll provide a list of ways to minimize the possibility of troubled projects altogether.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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