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How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts

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How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts
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Projects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts helps executives, senior managers, project sponsors, program managers, portfolio managers, and managers of project managers find project disasters in time, before they become disasters, and then cancel them or turn them around, to make a big improvement in organizational performance.
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Projects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it?

What's on this page:

Project failures — even project disasters — are much more common than most of us realize, because most failures are concealed by the facts that the project was completed, and that it accomplished more or less what we thought it would. The projects that fail utterly, and end in cancellation, are the obvious disasters. But most troubled projects are hidden. Finding them while there's still time to avert the trouble, and then preventing trouble or extricating these projects from trouble, can make a big difference in organizational performance.

Hidden disasters were disasters financially, because they ran over budget, or they were completed late, or both. Other disasters perhaps were completed on time and on budget, but only at the expense of other projects, which were stripped of talent at critical times. And some disasters were on time and on budget, but never led to the market success they originally promised.

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts tells you how to identify disasters — both hidden and obvious — before they become disasters. Written specifically for the executive and senior manager, it tells you how to read a project, to determine what secrets might lie beneath its tranquil surface. Armed with these techniques you not only can prevent projects from becoming disasters themselves, but you can also prevent projects from wrecking your organization.

Most important, you'll be able to identify troubled projects while there is still time to fix them or cancel them with minimal waste of resources.

Read How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts to learn techniques for identifying trouble projects that seem to be on track — tips and insights that could take you a lifetime to invent on your own. For example, you'll learn:

  • Not only what to look for, but also how to look for what's missing — for instance, passion at the top
  • What to measure, and how to get around the Hawthorne Effect when you do
  • How to adjust organizational policy to limit the risk of troubled projects and get more done with the same resources
  • What usually goes wrong with risk management
  • How to spot project trouble by monitoring contract negotiation activity
  • Special risks of projects that have external customers

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is packed with tips and techniques for recognizing trouble that arises from:

  • Workplace politics
  • Project management practice
  • Organizational issues
  • Interactions with external customers
  • Human behavior
  • Dealing with defects in deliverables

And it's all packaged in a single, compact e-booklet. Load it onto your Acrobat-enabled mobile device or laptop and carry it with you on your next trip. At over 16,000 words, it's about 1.3 times the size of Who Moved My Cheese?.

Who can benefit
How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts addresses a broad readership:
  • Organizational leaders who want to set organizational policy to maximize the success of all projects
  • Senior managers who want to guide sponsors and leaders of project teams within their organizations
  • Sponsors of projects who want better results faster
  • Managers of project managers

What you do with it depends on your role in your organization. Here are just a few ideas:

Organizational leaders
Use the ebook as part of a program for enhancing your organization's sophistication with respect to project disasters. Pick and choose ideas, add your own insights, and examine organizational policy for ways to tighten project creation and management practice, and for ways to enhance and focus monitoring. Or have us customize the ebook to your organization to create training and reference materials for executives, senior managers, sponsors, auditors and project managers.
Senior managers
Whether managing a crisis or creating a risk management plan, understanding the problems and pitfalls of the project management helps you deliver a successful project or operate with enhanced predictability. By focusing your attention on the right projects, early in the unfolding of failure, you can intervene when needed and only when needed.
Sponsors of projects
Sponsors are uniquely positioned either to create disaster or to prevent it. They act as an important part of the interface between the project and and the rest of the organization, arranging for resources, championing the project, and curtailing project excesses. Finding the balance is critical, and this ebook provides essential guidance.
Managers of project managers
Managers of project managers, or leads of project management offices, can also benefit from How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts. They can advise project managers about high-risk practices; advise senior managers about policy that supports risk reduction; and help devise reporting mechanisms to focus monitoring and auditing activities to increase risk identification efficiency.
Sample content

Here are some sample tips.

Be alert when the budget for contingencies was driven down during initial negotiations
If the project manager or risk manager presented a budget for contingencies, and that budget was driven down in negotiations with the sponsor, the customer, Marketing, Sales, or management, take care. It's possible that the project manager or risk manager yielded under the weight of superior political clout. The true cost of those contingencies is probably closer to the proposed number than it is to the number that emerged from negotiations.
To limit repetitions of this sort of thing, collect data about negotiations. Let everyone know that it's OK to negotiate, and it's OK to make these adjustments, but the adjustments must be included in a Negotiation Report. That alone might deter some from using political clout to arrive at unrealistic results.
You can then create software to automatically alert internal "troubled project monitors" to flag the project, even in cases where deterrence isn't achieved.
Beware projects with a high incidence of split assignments
An individual has a split assignment when he or she is working on two or more projects, and is responsible to two or more different project leads. If this practice is widespread in your organization, it could mean that there are too many projects active at once. It could also mean that there is a shortage of people with particular skills. In either case, the projects that share people are at risk, for three reasons.
First, if trouble arises in one project, in the area covered by the split team member, the other project(s) will temporarily have to make do with a reduced level of services of the split team member. This might work out, but there is a finite chance that trouble will hit more than one of these projects simultaneously.
Second, it's unlikely that the project leads who share team members have enough schedule control or flexibility to avoid contending for the split team members simultaneously. Even if they do have such flexibility, they have to discuss and compare schedules, which takes time that many don't want to use, given the low likelihood of a good outcome.
Finally, split assignments are usually arranged so that the split person's total effort summed over all projects is 100%. But that's unrealistic. The splitting itself costs time. A good rule of thumb is 5% per project. Thus, a person shared by two projects is only 90% available.
And split assignments have subtle effects on the level of trust in the organization — they tend to erode trust. In projects where trust is very important (example: dispersed or virtual teams), this effect can create both unrecognized cost and unanticipated risk to the project.
More info on split assignments.
Be alert to financial trouble at bet-the-ranch suppliers
When a project relies on elements delivered through an outsource arrangement, and when the vendor is severely extended and in trouble, that project must be considered at risk, even if all is well in terms of schedule and budget. Project leads who do not monitor the financial health of such vendors are flying blind and without instruments.
When a project contracts with a vendor, and when that project is a stretch for that vendor, the situation calls for an elevated level of risk monitoring by the project lead and sponsor. Have the project lead set an appropriate Google Alert for the supplier, key locations for that supplier, and all key personnel of that supplier.
Table of contents

Click the folder icons to reveal (or hide) chapter content summaries.

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Introduction

Workplace politics

  • Two organizational heavyweights are at war
  • The denial/compliance cycle
  • The current project lead didn't devise the current project plan
  • Early scope creep
  • The usual designated winners are in charge
  • Emigration of designated winners
  • Sponsor anxiety

Project management practice

  • Project vision statement addresses the wrong audience
  • Project plan contains no definition of "we're in trouble"
  • The requirements were supposed to be stable by now, but they aren't
  • Confused team meetings
  • Risk plan fossilization
  • Lack of consensus about the risk plan
  • Lip service to the open issues list
  • Long gaps between scheduled milestones
  • Limited use of checklists
  • Deadlines are redefined only after they're obviously impossible
  • People write progress reports, but rarely are they read
  • Late downscoping
  • Intraproject communication is ineffective
  • Upward trend (or spike) in cell phone minutes
  • A dispersed project has tasks that span site boundaries
  • Critical documents weren't professionally translated for offshore units
  • A dispersed project team lacks a formal communications plan
  • Lack of a defined process for project turnarounds
  • Failure to conduct retrospectives

Organizational issues

  • Lack of coordination between project teams and internal service departments
  • We exported onto the project the consequences of executive and board room delays
  • The organization has undertaken process change without replanning projects
  • The project team has outdated or inadequate equipment and tools
  • We changed some of the tools they use without replanning the project
  • The budget for contingencies was driven down
  • The schedule assumes full-time availability of all team members
  • The schedule assumes overtime
  • High incidence of split assignments
  • Gross asymmetry in a critical split assignment
  • The project lead has three or more projects to lead
  • The project plan was overconstrained
  • Travel budgets were cut below what a dispersed project originally proposed
  • For bet-the-ranch projects, unexpected defection of cognizant management
  • Financial trouble of bet-the-ranch suppliers
  • The contract is under renegotiation
  • The project manager is a contractor
  • The project manager is formally a hands-on project manager
  • The project manager isn't hands-on, but has only hands-on experience

Projects with internal customers

  • The principal champion is one of the developers
  • The schedule was specified mostly as a cost control device
  • The schedule was determined by the need for revenue
  • The sponsor resists stabilizing the requirements
  • The customer doesn't acknowledge the need for rational project management
  • A pattern of resource yanking

Projects with external customers

  • The price was quoted before the requirements were defined
  • The price was quoted without a real estimate
  • The price quoted was significantly less than the project manager's estimate
  • The customer resists participation in necessary decisions
  • Client staff argue among themselves during meetings
  • Relationships between client leadership and client staff are breaking down
  • Turnover in the client project lead position
  • Customer demands modification (or abandonment) of your customary working process
  • Customer initiates contract amendment
  • Customer is taking longer and longer to pay invoices

Human behavior

  • The high priests are the only ones with a clue
  • Project meeting absenteeism
  • Late attendance at meetings or early departures
  • Sudden increase in meetings centered around one particular subtask
  • Overtime is mandatory
  • Burnout
  • Red flags on the morale flagpole
  • High nose count of elephants in the room
  • Difficulty finding volunteers
  • Sudden increase (or steady uptrend) in emigration per capita
  • High density of warm bodies
  • Closely held information
  • Downside surprises
  • They didn't (don't) celebrate their successes
  • Passion deficit at the top
  • Nobody answers the doorbell
  • Sudden drop in the ratio of bad news to good
  • A trend of increasing (or a spike in) vending machine sales per capita
  • A trend of increasing (or a spike in) off-hours headcount

Defects in deliverables

  • Quality Assurance reports to the same organization that does the work
  • The testing cycle has been shortened
  • See no evil
  • Defect denial
  • Failure to categorize defects
  • Patterns of defect reclassification
  • Zero defects
Details and additional information

This item is also available in 10-copy packs (USD 15.00 per copy), in 50-copy packs (USD 13.90 per copy), in 100-copy packs (USD 11.39 per copy) and in 500-copy packs (USD 9.39 per copy).

How to Spot a Troubled Project is in Acrobat format, which gives you several advantages. You can print it, and read it like any book. Or in electronic form, you can use the search capability of Adobe Reader to find passages of special interest to you. If you load it onto your laptop, tablet, or other mobile device, you can read it anywhere — and it's weightless, too. 30 pages.

More info

File size:596 KBytes
Print length:30 pages
ISBN:978-1-938932-07-6
Simultaneous Device Usage:Unlimited devices, but single user
Publication date:April 11, 2008
Sold by:Chaco Canyon Consulting
Language:English

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Last modified: 26 Oct 2016 04:28 Eastern Time

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