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

Other signals include people not showing up for meetings, not paying attention or just not saying anything.

"One of the things I've seen that helps projects along is a positive environment," Jim Johnson says. "That makes a big difference, and with a positive outlook you can do so much better."

The need for interest applies to the customers as well as the team. As Jim Johnson puts it, "You want to see active participation, active feedback and an energized user base." If that's not there, then the chances of project success are poor.

Poor communication
Lack of communication, both formal and informal, is another early warning sign. If the stakeholders, from team members to users, aren't talking to each other, you've got a problem.

Ideally, project review meetings shouldn't contain any surprises because everyone knows — in at least a general way — what's going on with the other parts of the project.

Lack of velocity
For Jim Johnson, and advocates of agile project management in general, "velocity" is a key concept. That usually translates into a lot of small deliverables at frequent intervals. Velocity not only makes tracking progress easier, but it's also good psychology; it reinforces a feeling of success and builds team morale.

"With IT projects, it's difficult to operate over a long period of time," observes AtTask's Scott Johnson. "You need the frequent small rewards of hitting smaller milestones. If you can plan them around things you can put in your customers' hands, that's even better."

"You want to have fast-moving items," says Jim Johnson. "You want velocity of deliverables. That's the real key."

"One of the classic signs a project is in trouble is that things aren't moving," he adds.

A "No-Bad-News" Environment
"This is a really tricky cultural thing," says Raj Kapur, executive vice president of the Center for Project Management, a software project management consultancy and education firm in San Ramon, California. "Everyone is allergic to bad news." As a result, it's all too easy to develop a culture where bad news is slow to percolate upward — which deprives management of vital, if unpleasant, information.

"You have to provide an environment where bad news is accepted," says Kapur. "That's critical, and it's not the job of the team members. It's the job of the leader." And by extension, the CIO.

Concrete Signs
All the early warning signs are not intangible. Some of them are very tangible indeed — if you know where to look.

Kapur advocates using a dashboard tool that allows managers and others visibility into a project at the click of a mouse. "Organizations that do a good job of providing an executive visibility tend to have less troubled projects," he says. "It prevents the green-green-green — and at the last minute red syndrome."

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