The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

Red flags indicating possible project failure

Designing, implementing and integrating major IT systems has numerous pitfalls that don’t appear, for example, in building construction. People who are responsible for delivering major IT projects – or are paying for one – need to be aware of what indicators are red flags for possible failure of the project.

Classical project management tools were built assuming that projects execute well-defined, known steps. These tools often fail to predict problems when applied to complex software-based IT projects, because software development (or customization or integration) almost always requires engineering – adaptation and experimentation to find a workable fit to the problem. Such experimentation can’t be adequately managed by PERT and Gantt charts alone. In addition to the classical tools, a project manager needs insight into how this engineering gets accomplished – or not – in the context of IT projects.

I’ve identified 5 categories of red flags for possible IT project failure, what they mean, why they are significant and what kind of countermeasures are available to deal with them. The signs are grouped into the following categories:

Progress – or lack of it: How do you know that the project is progressing? Have you chosen the right milestones? What do you do about changes to the mission/requirements/goals of the project?

Management – Are you working from the same agenda as the development team? Do you have the right sponsor support? Are you rewarding the right things? Is there sufficient technical depth in the management? Do you have enough (or too much) control? Is the team burning out?

Processes & tools – Automation: What is the build/integrate/release cycle time? How often does a build fail to complete? What is the trend of the testing/QA backlog?

Team dynamics – Does the development team have the right attitude towards management? The right communications style? Honesty about actual status? Is there sufficient technical depth in the development team?

Complexity – Is the project excessively constrained (by time, by dependencies, by team dispersion)? Are there too many interfaces or data formats? Are the objectives changing too rapidly?

If you would like to see details of ten of the red flags and their countermeasures, please join me for a free webinar on Oct. 30. Here are the topics to be covered:

◦ Roles & responsibilities
◦ Reporting relationships
◦ Engineering vs. operations

Progress – or lack of it:
◦ Making progress visible
◦ How to deal with schedule slippage
◦ What to do when the backlog of work is growing

◦ Sponsorship and how to use it
◦ Investigating your reward systems
◦ Do you have enough control – or too much?
◦ What to do about team burnout

Processes & Tools:
◦ Do you have enough automation?
◦ QA work and the feedback cycle

Team Dynamics:
◦ Taking the temperature of a team
◦ Defining “done” and being truthful
◦ Signs of technical inadequacy

◦ Is there too little time?
◦ Are there too many interfaces (existing subsystems)?
◦ Changes add complexity

◦ How to prepare for future projects
◦ Reducing risk in IT

After reviewing the danger signs and their countermeasures, I’ll conclude with pointers on how to prepare yourself and your teams for the next IT project and suggestions on how to reduce risk throughout the IT department.

To attend the free webinar, please Register here

After Oct. 30, you can also find a recording of the webinar via my website:


About the Author

John Levy helps business executives get predictable, consistent and innovative results from high-tech people in IT and product development. His clients include insurance and manufacturing companies as well as high-tech enterprises in software, computers and storage. John’s book on managing high-tech people, Get Out of the Way, was published in 2010. For more information visit his website, phone 415 663-1818 or email John has held engineering management positions with Quantum Corporation, Apple Computer, Tandem Computers, and Digital Equipment Corporation. He earned a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University, and holds engineering degrees from Cornell and Caltech. He is a named inventor or on seven U.S. patents related to computer design. He has been engaged as an expert witness in over 50 cases of patent litigation related to computer, software, storage and Internet technologies, and has been a technical advisor to two U.S. District Court judges. For two years, he co-produced a weekly radio show on technology and computers broadcast on KWMR in Point Reyes Station. He teaches regularly at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco, with courses titled, “The Digital Revolution in the Home,” and “Computers – the Inside Story.”
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