The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world
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Do You Recognize The 5 Early Warning Signs of Project Failure?

Knowing when things are starting to go in the wrong direction is what separates a good PM from a great one. The keen eye you need to recognize a bad egg within your project comes with experience, yes, but there are a whole bunch of warning signs you can watch for.

Take a moment and consider the fact that only 40% of IT projects meet schedule, quality and daily goals, according to IBM. Less than half. So, the worst thing you could do when looking at your projects is to naively assume that everything is going to be magically okay.

Fear not! We’ll guide you through a simple thought process to help you nip these potential problems in the bud. Let’s dive right in.

But, before we proceed, what counts as project failure?

Early warning signs, or EWS for short, should be recognizable from the beginning, no matter how subtle. If they aren’t resolved properly, more problems occur, and a snowball effect takes everything South in no time. And according to PMI, these will accumulate over time to become project problems, project failure, underperformance and/or overrun.

What is project failure? Put simply, if any of the agreed-upon conditions, like deadline or budget, are not met and this has negative impacts on the strategic goals, a project can be considered a failure. At the point of project failure, sometimes we initiate a pick-up or alternative project to rectify main one, and the cycle of compensating for failure is hard—but not impossible—to break.

 

Warning Sign #1: There seem to be no warning signs

The sea is calm before the storm. This ancient proverb applies perfectly to project management as well. It is never supposed to be a calm ride the whole way through. If everything seems smooth, there is a great chance that you are overlooking something.

You need to be your own damage control team, on speed dial. Use proper resource scheduling tools to track your project time, budget and tasks so you can easily see the little details where things are starting to slip. When you have access to a broader picture of the resources needed for the job, you will see that it’s more straightforward to spot holes and assign resources in a way that makes the most sense according to the project’s goals—a big part of being a PM.

Even when things are going according to plan, make contingency plans, and be prepared for any mess that can happen along the way. You need to factor in a lot of variables with your clients, team members and managers, budget, time, logistics, and more. Project planning software can help you visualize all of these variables and dependencies while asking the all-important question: How could this project fail?

 

Warning Sign #2: You’re hearing crickets

We’re all human beings, and being embarrassed by a mistake is natural. The mistake is one thing, but being silent about it is the worst communication mistake that you or your team members can make. We’ve all been in a scenario where we do something badly, and we try not to talk about it. Believe it or not, even the biggest projects fail to some extent because of this tendency.

So, what can you do to avoid such risks? Invest in good communication for your team, and a solid line of communication with your client. Get rid of those awkward moments by establishing a friendly environment where mistakes are worked on, not punished. Get a fitting project communication tool, and get everyone on board. Create a platform for your team, because, trust me, you do not want to rely on email or phone in times of confusion.

Finally, consider whether or not you have an adequate process for reviewing work. Do you have time and procedures established for doing progress reports, status updates, and reviews? Having these dedicated times where your team can talk about the issues they’re finding, complications they’re up against, and new opportunities they see is well worth the 15 minutes per day that a quick status update can take.

 

Warning Sign #3: Constant excuses to not follow due process

“Ah, that’s nothing, we’ll get it in the testing phase”. If you hear this, and you surely have at one point or another, react immediately! Small stuff is often annoying to work on, but a snowball starts with a snowflake.

Getting around to the little things right away will always save you a great amount of money and time in the future. After all, if you track your changes correctly, you will have no problem going back and fixing it without spending extra resources. Make a dynamic project workflow, and make sure to split bigger problems into phase, and give them the same amount of attention. Workflow management software is there to help you map out your steps, and present them in a visual map that’s easy to understand.

Warning Sign #4: Everything is assigned “High Priority”

There’s a fine line between urgent and important. If we follow the Eisenhower Matrix Productivity Method, we need to see where our task falls in the areas between: urgent, important, not urgent and not important. This sounds easy, and it should be. The key to doing this is to create clear vision of the tasks once you prioritize them, which you can create by using any number of Kanban tools.

Get your tasks organized by priority and easy to understand at a glance. Not everything is urgent and important the same, and with Kanban method you can effectively de-prioritize the things that don’t matter and work on the stuff that does.

The second method worth mentioning is the Scrum system. Essentially, Scrum tools are there to help the team in task prioritization. Teams that rely on this method have structured daily and weekly routines that bring a focus to doing the right, important work and the right times. Whatever you choose, just remember that you should make a hierarchy for your problems and start from the top—no need to treat every problem as a crisis.

 

Warning Sign #5: There’s no roadmap

If a project needs to come to a halt, it’s considered a failure. Project paralysis is often expensive, and of course, it’s very demotivating for your teams. Far too often, this occurs because we don’t focus on seeing the finishing line in the first place.

Meier (2008) analyzed federal projects in the US to find the early warning signs of failure, and found that, along with issues like overzealous advocacy and unrealistic baselines, a lack of a corporate technology roadmap was a major contributor to project failure.

Do you have a roadmap for your organization? Not a vision statement, but a real, visual roadmap with milestones, key metrics, baselines, and deadlines? Big players in the PM game are known to create project portfolios which contribute to the roadmap for future projects. Using project portfolio management software, you can set your goals on an organizational level, and create templates for solving common problems along the way.

Summary

Even if you feel like your project is starting to slip away, you can apply this advice as a checklist, and save face before it’s too late. Let’s review:

  1.       Listen for the warning signs, and if there aren’t any, it’s time for a deeper inspection
  2.       Communicate problems even if they seem small or unimportant, silence is the kryptonite of communication
  3.       Sweat the small stuff. Track small changes, and work on them as soon as they appear
  4.       Do not stress everything as high priority, apply a system like Kanban or Scrum and prioritize your tasks every day
  5.       Create a clear vision of your project end-goal. Understand the high-level goals for the project, and communicate this to your teams, client, and stakeholders.
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