Project management: 9 signs your project may be in trouble

The earliest signs that a project is in trouble may be hard to measure, but they're easy to spot.

by Ty Kiisel, @task - As a kid I loved the Lost in Space TV series. Selected from among two million volunteers for the mission, the Robinsons, their pilot, and their B-9 environmental robot crash land on an unnamed planet after sabotage disables their spacecraft, the Jupiter 2.

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The youngest member of the crew, 9-year-old Will Robinson, and the robot become companions and eventually playmates while on the planet. Warning Will and the Robinsons of impending danger, the robot's cry of "Danger, Danger!" usually meant something exciting was about to happen.

Although most projects don't have a B-9 robot, there are early warning signs that identify a troubled project early enough to do something about it.

The earliest signs that a project is in trouble are hard to measure objectively, but are relatively easy to spot, if you're watching:

1. Lack of Interest: Whether it's a lack of interest within the project team or among stakeholders, a lack of interest is often demonstrated by people not showing up for meetings, a lack of active participation and feedback, or a poorly energized user base. This is an early-warning sign of a project in trouble.

2. Poor Communication: If nobody is communicating, including stakeholders, team members, and end users, there could be a problem.

3. Lack of Velocity: Projects should always be moving forward. The best way to keep a good velocity is to divide your project into small deliverables at frequent intervals. If the project isn't moving forward, it's likely in trouble.

4. A "No-Bad-News" Environment: Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes organizations need to face the reality of negative news. This includes project team members who don’t want to be the messenger and business leaders who tend to shoot the messenger. If there is not an environment where the communication is honest about "reality," projects tend to fail.

Intangible signals aren't the only indications that a project is in trouble; there are a number of measurable signs as well:

1. Lots of Overtime: A project running on schedule should have little or no overtime. Overtime is often a quick fix, but leads to poor employee health resulting from too much caffeine, too many late nights, and too much junk food. (It also leads to mistakes.)

2. Diversion of Resources: When people are pulled from one project to work on something else it could be a sign of trouble. If you’ve budgeted your human resources properly, a few hours here and there on a troubled project can quickly add up and cascade down, endangering healthy projects.

3. Ratios Trouble: Cost ratios and schedule ratios are financial metrics that allow business leaders to measure budgeted time and money verses money and time actually spent. Without metrics, all you have to rely on is the accuracy of the communication you receive from project teams.

4. Milestones Aren't Met: This is pretty obvious, but it's surprising how many times this warning sign is ignored. Small, discrete, and often, are the guidelines for the milestones of a successful project.

5. Scope Changes: A common approach to shoring up a lagging project is to change the scope. Eliminating features or relaxing requirements is not uncommon, but if project teams are doing this because the project is in trouble, it’s a huge warning sign of danger ahead.

Of course, warning signs are not the work management harbinger of doom, they just alert you that a project might be in trouble. How do you spot struggling projects early -- when there's still time to take action?

Ty Kiisel writes about project management issues and best practices for @task Project Management Software. Follow Ty on Twitter: @tykiisel

For more project management tips, see:

Project management: Scrapping a doomed project

Project Management: 4 Questions To Ask Before Starting Any Project

Project management: 4 tips for dealing with problem stakeholders

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