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Rescuing the troubled project

PM Oracles
October 9, 2012

You are not impervious to having troubled projects in your portfolio. Any project can fail. Even the most seasoned and skilled project manager may, at one time or another, find themselves at the helm of a troubled project. Having a project in trouble does not necessarily signal the project manager is doing a poor job.

Projects can go off course for a variety of reasons; some reasons are outside the span of control of the project manager. What are some of the common causes for projects to fall into troubled waters and what are some prudent steps to get the project back on course?

If you poll a group of seasoned project professionals with the question, ‘What are the chief causes of troubled projects?’ you are likely to receive a variety of responses, though quite possibly there will be some commonly attributed causes. At the macro level, we put forth that projects generally fall into trouble for one or more of three reasons:

  1. Poor planning
  2. Misaligned expectations
  3. Ineffective risk management

Poor planning

Planning is a foundation of project management. Within the context of this article, planning is not limited to the development of the project plan. Having a well defined project plan, with realistic estimates and work packages covering each necessary activity to achieve the project objectives, does not inoculate a project from falling into trouble.

Proper planning includes identifying all project stakeholders, understanding their attitudes, influence levels, and communication needs, and ensuring the plan covers these needs. Additionally, proper planning for your project should include defining, gathering and properly documenting all of the project requirements.

Vague or open-ended project requirements are a recipe for trouble in most situations unless your organisation has mature processes or uses time boxing for requirements such as in Agile. Failure to capture all requirements and gain absolute clarity on them, can lead to too much change during execution, and potentially derailing behaviour on the project. It is not good behaviour to debate with your key stakeholders on what the requirements ‘really meant’ after the work has been performed.

For an example of aligning attitudes and expectations to avoid your project getting into trouble, imagine you work in a functional organisation, and you know that project priorities and your project manager authority over team members is low. A functional manager assigns his top person to fill a key project role. While this may sound okay, remember the type of organisation you work in: this ‘top person’ is likely to have competing objectives with the project, and it is probable that high priority functional tasks will take priority over tasks for your project. Instead of ignoring this risk or hoping for the best, set up the resourcing to succeed, by planning the work appropriately. This is one of many planning elements that can cause a project to veer into trouble.

Misaligned expectations

Stakeholder’s expectations often change through a project’s life. Indeed, stakeholders themselves, including the sponsor, often change. Most project teams capture their stakeholder’s expectations at the start, and devise means of prioritising and deciding when conflicting expectations exists.

However, do you continue to pay attention to changing needs and changing stakeholders? Projects that fail to identify and respond to stakeholder changes, for example when new people come on board, and/or the organisation needs to change direction, are prone to sway into trouble.

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PM Oracles
PM Oracles is Gareth Byatt, Gary Hamilton, Jeff Hodgkinson and Duke Okes, all experienced PMO, program, and project managers who share a common passion to help others and share knowledge about PMO, portfolio, program and project management.
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