Do you have any projects that are currently off track – behind schedule, over budget, not delivering the quality desired or a combination of these – if so, then your mind is probably preoccupied with the one question – how do I get to project recovery?
This is a topic that I have just completed the first draft for my upcoming book, Recovering Troubled Projects. I am writing a five-part series of posts on the topic and we will start at the beginning – recognising that your project is in trouble – this is truly the start of the project recovery journey.
Subsequent post will cover:
- How To: Plan your project recovery
- How To: Implement your project recovery strategy
- How To: Sustain recovery and establish a new norm for project execution
- Never again: how to make sure your future projects are a success
Leading Indicators of Trouble (LIT)
Like your own health, you will have a sense of whether your project is in trouble or not – however, you will not know how much trouble and what the consequences might be until you gather the right data – both qualitative and quantitative. Also, keep your eyes and ears tuned at all times – if constructive input is given that suggests that there are problems, don’t ignore it. At the very least, assess the feedback – things are often more obvious to an outsider.
Let’s start with the quantitative signs.
Any project needs to have certain guiding elements no matter what stage you are at. We will frame all of our project thinking again a four stage life cycle:
- Kick Starting
- Closing Out
Projects can fail at any stage, but it is well worth remembering that the root cause for failure is most often at the beginning and not the end. So let’s look at each stage of the project and talk to the early warning signs of trouble.
The Planning Stage
“A bad beginning makes a bad ending” – Euripides (484BC – 406BC)
The planning stage is typically loose and creative, with a lot of brainstorming happening. However, at the very least there is either a problem or opportunity that we are seeking to resolve or exploit – this needs to be documented and agreed by all key stakeholders. At every stage of the process there are deliverables that we should we monitoring and the first indicator of trouble is that there are no metrics in place – even a simple purpose statement and commitment date to have the next stage started is something we can manage – the culture of a project is established at a very early stage. It may seem trivial, but it is not. We are establishing our operating principles by applying them everyday – remember, we are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit (Aristotle).
With this in mind, our project plan should have the following, in the sequence laid out, during the planning stage:
- Project Lead and/or Sponsor assigned
- Project Mission Statement (does not need to be long)
- Work Breakdown Structure
- List of Deliverables
- Key Milestones
- Budgetary Estimate
- Scope Document (note: items 4 to 7 happen concurrently and will be iterated many times throughout the project) – this should be a combination of the user requirements and the resultant system/equipment/architectural requirements – it will likely be a collection of documents.
- Risk Analysis
- Roles and Responsibilities (RACI matrix covering governance, management and execution)
- Schedule – based upon items 4 through 7 above
- Organisational Chart
- Resource Plan
- Agreed Metrics and Communication Plan
- Stage Gate Review
- Decision Log – or just update the source document if it is easier.
- What scoreboard are you using today?
- A scuttlebutt review
I know, this all sound too much, but it’s not. Start at the start and work through all the items in a natural sequence. If you find some can be combined, then combine them. If you find some are not necessary, then agree as a team that they are not necessary. Talk a lot, make decisions, document the decisions.
The first sign of a project progressing well is that these artefacts exist and that they are comprehensible – if not, why not and what is the plan? If there is no clear answer, then you begin to get somewhat uncomfortable.
As the planning stage matures and time passes, you begin to accumulate costs and hopefully progress. You need to keep in regular contact to make sure that the right level of detail is going into the documenting of the project scope, budget and resource requirements and that there is a very clear purpose associated with the overall project – the project brief/charter.
The second test is if you are making significant progress on the planning deliverables, but the project charter has not yet been drafted/reviewed/approved and/or the project sponsor has not been identified, or if they have, has not yet engaged with the team. A critical success factor within projects is key leadership who create and support clarity of purpose from the outset. Without this, it is almost certain that you will have vague drivers, scope creep and the key ingredients for failure, not success.
The third most common indicator of failure is a hastiness to move on to the next stage and mobilise the troops without completing out the planning stage – any decision of this nature should be made consciously and the best mechanism for this is a stage gate review. Ideally, all the deliverables should be complete or at a stage where you can make an informed decision to go ahead or not – if they are not complete, this may be an early warning sign or it may be ok – this is what decision-making is for. If you are going to go ahead on less than ideal grounds, make sure that the elements where you are proceeding are well characterised and have key targets over the coming weeks (30 days recommended). Do not go and build the team out to do the rest of the planning.
The fourth indicator is either the total absence of explicit assumptions or the opposite, too many assumptions. Until an assumption is proven to be true, it is in effect a risk to the success of your project. Treat all assumptions as potential risk and ask yourself – What if this is not true? What will it mean for my project?
The fifth indicator is a lack of clear reporting – this could be put right up at the top, as from the outset, you should have a roadmap of the planning phase. Once the planning phase is complete, you should have a roadmap of the complete project delivery – things will change, but they change from a plan and for reasons that need to be clearly understood. At a minimum you should have:
- Outline schedule
- Key milestones
- Deliverables register
- Team members and what they are responsible for – use a format that specifies the governance, management and execution elements separately.
The sixth indicator is a little more qualitative. Take a step back and ask yourself a few questions:
- Are we super clear on the purpose of the project (the why)?
- If so, is it documented and agreed?
- Are we clear on key dates?
- If not, why not?
- Are we clear on who does what?
- If not, why not?
- Can we simplify any elements of the project?
- If yes, what and how do we make the decision?
- If no, why?
- Project principles/culture has been established?
- Is there a clear focus with respect to WHY, WHAT and WHEN throughout the team?
- Why we undertaking this project?
- What does it involve – in detail?
- When does it need to be delivered by?
- The benefits both personally and for the company?
- The consequences of failure, both personally and for the company?
Having asked all the above and review responses, are you comfortable with the responses – if yes, are you happy to continue executing as is? If no, what changes do you want to make? Be super clear here, as a problem addressed at this stage can save enormous pain (time, money, careers) later in the project.
As with all things in life, it is not the absence of one element, but the accumulation of evidence that is critical – make sure you take the proper action with the information to hand.
That’s enough for the planning stage. We are now assuming that we have conducted a stage gate review of the planning stage and have made a decision to go ahead – either a very clean decision, or one with caveats. Let’s now look at the kick-off stage of the project.
Kick Starting Your Project Stage
“The way to develop decisiveness is to start right where you are, with the very next question you face.” – Napoleon Hill
Now you have completed the decision-making process of kick starting your project, the clarity we spoke about during planning is key, as you will be using this to direct both internal (your work colleagues) and external (vendors you engage) to do work for you with a particular purpose.
The first indicator of potential trouble is that the project leadership has not taken the unfinished business of the planning stage and completed it out. As a project kicks off, the team size grows and it is critical that there is clarity with respect to:
- Who does What?
- Critical deliverables
- Key metrics
and on and on – the key word here is CLARITY. If you find that the project leader/manager is now too busy to bring clarity to all aspects of the project outlined in the planning stage, then you are certainly in for a bumpy ride on your projects.
The second indicator of trouble can be found in your metrics – if you don’t have a clear set of metrics that represent all the facets of the project that you need to measure, then that is big trouble now. You can add to the metrics as you go on, but you have to monitor what is happening now and needs to happen in the future to deliver on your mission. Assuming you have a useful set of metrics, then, as they say, the trend is either your friend or enemy – use it to extrapolate the most likely outcome and deal with the results.
Metrics can be used to give information by answering the following questions:
- Past: What happened in the past will be documented in reports
- Present: Alert are used to tell us what is happening now
- Future: Used past events to extrapolate the likely outcomes in the future
All of this is simple reporting – however, you can also use data to gain insights to:
- Past: to understand why and how things happened using modeling
- Present: to make recommendation on the next “best action”
- Future: to predict what the best/worst thing that is likely to happen and aid in optimisation
At a minimum, you need to be dealing in the information spectrum; otherwise trouble is a certainty.
The third leading indicators of potential trouble is that the critical early hires that you have hired are essential, do not materialise. Allied with this is the temptation to just hire anyone, further compounding the situation; what you need to do is look at how you best resolve the problem permanently; hiring the wrong people is temporarily hiding the problem, while most likely amplifying its impact at a later stage in the project where you will have less opportunity to recover from it.
The fourth leading indicator of potential trouble is that your external vendors are not living up to the project delivery standards that you expect of your own team or perhaps even more worrisome at not clear to the external vendors. This needs a detailed review of:
- How have the vendors been engaged?
- What are their contracted deliverables?
- Who is responsible for managing these?
- What reporting has been agreed?
- What had the performance been to date?
You will likely find that this is a complex area and needs detailed attention if it is to managed in a way that does not become a source of trouble.
The fifth leading indicator of potential trouble is the practice of hastily issuing purchase orders to vendors for long lead items without clear scopes of work and/or key parties involved. This is done on the mistaken belief that the clock is now running on the vendor – however, the real clock only runs when all the detail is finalised and specifications agreed. Often then it is difficult to get what you need as the vendor claims it not in the contracted scope and will constitute extra time and cost, leading to a vicious cycle of losing time, money and goodwill on both sides. Only award the contract, when the scope, cost and delivery timeline are all agreed – then resist with all your might, changes to scope.
The sixth leading indicator of potential trouble is the feedback that you receive on the charter. I know assume is a dangerous word, but I am assuming that everyone with a role to play in the successful outcome of the project, is given a copy of the project charter to read. You will get feedback and you should make sure that this is taken seriously as it will give you a valuable insight into:
1.The quality and clarity of your charter; if it needs to be revised, do so and communicate it to all parties.
2.The mood of the team – you need to make sure that you have a committed team and that you remove any obstacles that might detract from their commitment or ability to deliver.
The seventh indicator of potential trouble is that the project has or is becoming too technically orientated not sufficiently business orientated – the technical solution at all times needs to serve the business aims. This can be detected in both qualitative and quantitative terms. In qualitative terms, you will see delays on decision-making, highly technical meetings with no recourse to the end customer, people critical of design without a clear reasoning of the impact that it will have on the desired business objective. On the quantitative side, sign will be overly cumbersome documentation, large number of requests for change, poor or no correlation of system features to business benefits as per the project charter.
The next number of indicators are going to look specifically at the team dynamic. After the early stages of a project, there is a real need to make sure that the full intent is transferred from the initial core team to the growing new team – this requires continuity of tenure for the initial team members involved at the start – the eighth leading indicator of potential trouble is a turnover of key staff after the initial front end design work – this can lead to a loss of tacit knowledge or a loss in focus on the primary purpose of the project – both should be documented, but they need to be brought to life, and this happens through committed people.
As the team size grows, new ideas emerge and things take on a new shape – hopefully the intended shape. There is a real need to encourage people to develop new ideas, but the new ideas are given permission to be further developed only when they deliver a better outcome for our project – often times busyness sets in and a large volume of works gets launched without a clear purpose – another potential indicator of trouble is that the project lacks of a singular focus – when you are talking to people working on the project, is it clear from their responses what the final desired outcome is?
In projects as in life, things go wrong. The important thing is that we take ownership of fixing them and put them right in a way that fixes this occurrence and reduces the chance of a recurrence – if this is not the case and we see simple reporting of problem with unclear action plans and/or ownership, then we are seeing the tenth leading indicator of trouble, a lack of accountability within the team.
Allied with the lack of accountability, another leading indicator of trouble (number 11) is the lack of a clear, documented set of Roles and Responsibilities for the team – as your team grows, this is more and more essential. In order for this to be complete, it should be broken into three tiers – Governance, Management and Execution. Depending on the size of the project, these roles may merge, but it is good to know this and have it agreed upfront.
Assuming that your team is more than just you, there is a clear need to make sure that everyone, both the internal team and the external vendors being utilised have a clear understanding of why the project is being undertaken and any key success factors. The best way of doing this is a clear, concise briefing pack – both electronic and hard copy, kept up to date as things change. The absence of a clear, concise briefing pack for new team members is a leading indicator of trouble.
On almost all projects we will have to work with parties that are external to our core team and who have other priorities than us. If we do not embrace them into the team and create a common purpose with them, then we will end up with trouble – how does this manifest itself? A them and us bias on communications, they are blamed for all problems, unexpected news (potentially meaning that we don’t have a great line of communication established with them) and so on – leading indicator number 13.
And finally, for now, when you come across a situation where all the elements are well documented, but the actions of the team members do not jive with the agreed plans and principles, then you have possible trouble – indicator number 14.
Actually, just one more – a little hard to measure, but you will know when you feel it – a lack of energy in the team.
Ok, this is the last one – there are no near term goals, or worse still they do not make sense in the context of either the project or the current stage of the project.
That makes fifteen leading indicators of trouble at this stage:
- Unfinished planning work has now been forgotten or is not seen as a priority – critical here is a clear work breakdown structure.
- Absence of a clear scoreboard
- Poor progress of critical early hires
- External vendors not meeting expectations
- Early contracts awarded with incomplete requirements
- Charter feedback indicates ambiguity or lack of common purpose
- Technical bias begins to take over from business imperative
- Premature turnover of key staff
- Loss of focus and/or scope creep
- Lack of accountability
- Unclear roles and responsibilities
- No simple, concise and clear briefing mechanism for new team members
- It’s the vendors fault
- Team actions do not jive with stated plans and principles
- A lack of energy
- No near term goals (30 days)
I hope that you are still with me and because I want you to take action, I will leave the post to that today. If you have no projects at either of these stages, then the action you should take is to make sure that you have a checklist to make sure that you do not repeat these issues in future projects. If you do have projects in this phase, then develop take this article and conduct a quick review immediately – it doesn’t need to be 100% correct – allow yourself to rank against four scores – definitely (evidence based), I think so or I think not(intuition) and definitely not (evidence based). Depending on the outcome, you may want to come back to me to discuss.
Until the next time – I really want to hear your opinion on this topic also, as I am investing a sizable amount of time on these articles and I want them to be useful.
Recovering Troubled Projects
I have just finished the first draft of my new book and am looking for editors. Are you interested?
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