Even the best of projects can become "troubled". Fortunately, catastrophic "trouble" rarely happens all at once and usually develops over time. This provides ample opportunity to act - but you have to be paying attention. It's very easy, and all too common, for a busy (and dedicated) project manager to get "too close" to a project and not see the signs of trouble. But, there are always signs, and the smart project manager learns how to read them and how to act accordingly. Read on for more.
What is a troubled project? Every project has problems and issues. That does not make it a "troubled project". To be called troubled, problems and issues must go beyond the norm, and fall into the realm of continuing and significant. In other words, the nature and consistency of the problems and issues must be such that they present a tangible threat to the project result and/or continuity of the project management process.
What are some of the most common signs of a troubled project?
Again, it is important to remember that "trouble" is more than just the existence of the above listed circumstances and conditions --- "trouble" is about persistance, frequency and the overwhelming sense that the "negative" greatly outweighs the positive. That's the nature of a troubled project - and you'll know it when you see it (as long as your eyes are open).
As we have already noted, projects may be headed towards failure for any number or combination of reasons. If you are to react properly, you must be able to readily identify those reasons as they apply to a project at hand. The most common reasons for project failures are poor concepts (failure to define, align and approve), inadequate planning, lack of resources (time, money, staffing and/or materials), overly aggressive scheduling, failure to keep up with changing circumstances, lack of management support, and related factors. (Also Read: Planning for Project Management Audits)
Whatever the underlying negatives may be, when in the midst of a troubled project, action must be taken - quickly, decisively, and with discretion. The first step is to perform a "troubled project assessment".
"A picture speaks louder than 1,000 words". Get an illustrated view of the project review and lessons learned process in our informative infographic Lessons Learned: The Road to Continuous Improvement.
The troubled project assessment can be performed in four (4) primary steps, designed to weigh the value, consequences and viability of project continuation vs. cancellation:
#1 - Can this project be saved by re-working project plans, reducing project scope, revised deliverables, staff changes, resource leveling, revised schedules, additional funding, team re-organization, or other related actions? Note: If the answer is yes, the focus can then shift to remedial action.
#2 - What are the benefits of cancellation? When you cancel a project, you need to be sure that cancellation is the best course of action. Project cancellation can yield many benefits, even though it signals the end of a previously chosen project initiative. When a project is cancelled it can save money, time, and free up resources to work on more important, potentially successful projects.
#3 - Do you have cancellation consensus? Project managers rarely have the ability to cancel a project unilaterally, and even if they did, it would be unwise to exercise that power without consultation and consensus. A cancelled project is not necessarily a management failure, particularly when the cancellation is appropriate and timely. But it is important to have the buy-in of all key stakeholders and participants including your project sponsors, management, end-users and team members.
#4 - What is the potential "cancellation impact" on project staff, end-users, related projects, regulatory requirements, or other related factors?
If the troubled project can be rescued, immediate action should be taken to eliminate problem areas and modify plans as needed to "make the project possible". Remedial action will depend upon the number and nature of the "trouble" being encountered. However, should your assessment show that cancellation is the best, most appropriate course of action, subsequent cancellation activities should be conducted in a structured, orderly fashion:
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Strategic fast tracking is a streamlined project management process, used to level the playing field when "project problems" get in the way of on-time success. Our informative "fast tracking" article series explains more:
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