How to Spot a Failing Project

How to Spot a Failing Project

Often, the difference between success and failure is spotting critical early warning signs that a project is in trouble. Here are a few ways to identify the symptoms

"Communications can go back and forth quickly," Scott Johnson says. "You don't have to wait for a status report meeting to find something has gotten hung up. You don't have the bottleneck of an individual trying to broker communications."

Scott Johnson points out that new project management tools tend to be easier to use than the ones of a few years ago. In addition, they often include features such as sophisticated trend analysis that can spot problem projects early.

Another change, Standish Group's Jim Johnson says, is the use of new project management methodologies in place of the old waterfall model where the entire project proceeds step by step from analysis to final delivery en masse. Both Johnsons are strong proponents of agile project management, which focuses on breaking projects into small chunks and delivering pieces of it fast for user feedback.

Looking for Warning Signs
While the Chaos surveys give reason for optimism, they leave little room for complacency. Nearly one in five IT projects still fails absolutely and more than two in five are partial failures.

What is perhaps more troubling is that the bigger the project, the worse the problems. "Seventy-three percent of projects with labour cost of less than $750,000 succeed," Jim Johnson says. "But only 3 percent of projects a with labour cost of over $10 million succeed. I would venture to say the 3 percent that succeed succeeded because they overestimated their budget, not because they were managed properly."

(Perhaps significantly, agile project management is notoriously least effective on very large projects.)

Warning signs are different from reasons for project failure. Common reasons for failure include lack of management support and unclear objectives. Warnings are much more concrete and concerned with the day-to-day running of the project.

The Intangibles
The most important early warning signs are intangibles. The earliest signs a project is in trouble are hard to measure objectively, but easy to spot if you watch for them. Two of the most important, Jim Johnson says, are lack of interest in the project and chronically poor communications.

Lack of Interest
Often, Jim Johnson says, a lack of interest in the project's success results from a lack of real buy-in. Actors may have been pressured or cajoled into signing off on the project without really agreeing to it.

"Make sure everybody really agreed to what the project is going to do," he says. "Make sure everyone has the same goals even when they have conflicting agendas."

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