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Would You Spot The Warning Signs of a Failing Project?

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 14th July 2021

It would be good to think that a professional project manager could spot the warning signs of a project headed for failure but the sheer number of projects that fail to deliver on their promises, timescales or costs indicates that many project managers are not as good at spotting problems as they would like to think they are. Or maybe they spot them but don’t act to prevent them affecting the success of the project.
Serious problems in themselves will not lead to an unsuccessful project but failure to act on a problem will. And, as experienced PMs will know, it is important to remain upbeat about the project’s prospects because a pessimistic outlook can contribute to failure. It is normal for a project to have highs and lows and if at every low point the project manager and the team gave up then no project would ever be completed successfully.
So how can you identify a problem that could potentially derail your project and act to ensure that it does not?
Fortunately, as project management becomes recognised as a profession and professional training and career development for project managers becomes more common, the number of projects that succeed is growing. Nevertheless, it is still essential for the reputation of the profession and the individual project manager’s reputation that projects are prevented from failing wherever possible. And one of the ways of doing so is to identify the warning signs early and act on them.
Communication between the team, the stakeholders and the customers is improving, particularly with the use of tools that allow the sharing of documents in real time so that everyone is up-to-date on the latest project status. This prevents problems escalating in situations where the one person who might spot the problem had not been informed.
Changes in the approach to project management have also helped reduce failures – particularly the recognition that the project plan cannot be set in stone at the start of the project but that successful projects require ongoing modification and flexibility.
Warning signs are usually revealed as part of the regular project activities.
Inaccurate Business Requirements
Do the stakeholders really understand the requirements? They may have signed off on the documented requirements but was this just a rubber-stamping exercise? If there are early indications that stakeholders, customers or end-users do not have a clear idea of what the project will deliver then its success will always be in doubt.
Similarly if there are disagreements or mis-understandings over tasks and deliverables then the requirements may not, in fact, be documenting what the customer really needs and wants.
Changes to Scope
If changes are requested that reduce the scope of a project this is often an indicator that the documented requirements cannot be delivered in the defined timescale.
Changes to extend the scope are usually indicative of poorly-defined requirements that only come to light once the project is underway.
However, changes to scope can also be viewed as necessary for project success and a project that is flexible enough to change is actually more likely to succeed. Changes can make sure that a project delivers what was expected (with the associated business benefits) in an acceptable timeframe. So, whilst excessive scope changes may be a sign of a project in trouble they are also a normal part of the project lifecycle and often provide a route out of the trouble. The key is to be able to spot the difference.
Early Schedule Slippage
It would be a rare project that did not, at some point, experience schedule slippage but if this is occurring very early on in the project or is continuous throughout the project then it is likely that the original, and even subsequent plans, have been overly optimistic about the time needed to complete the project. There are many projects on which there have been repeated over-runs on the schedule but they have still been considered a success (take the London 2012 Olympics as an example) but there are just as many where the schedule slippage was the cause of the project failure because the deadline was critical, such as trying to get a product to market for competitive advantage.
Lack of Stakeholder Buy-In
There are a number of reasons why a stakeholder may not be fully committed to a project; they may have more important commitments, they may have been obliged to take on the role of stakeholder but have no real interest in the project or they may have a personal agenda that conflicts with the project. Whatever the reason, everyone involved in the project needs to be aiming for the same goal if it is to be a success.
Reduction in Resources
If, as a project manager, you are asked to complete a project with fewer people or a smaller budget than you had planned for then this is a sure sign that success is unlikely. If you can, renegotiate the requirements, budget or timeframe to compensate for the reduction in resources.
Missed Milestones
Milestones should always be clearly defined and measurable so that the project manager can be certain that a particular milestone has been completed. Ambiguous milestones that are dependent on other completed tasks should not be set because then there is no certainty of their having been accomplished.
When milestones are well-defined then if they are missed it is a good indication of an underlying problem.
But remember that a warning sign is just a warning – it does not mean the project is bound to fail and if you take serious note of a warning then you should be able to avoid project failure.

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