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 of which are outside your control.

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?

At the macro level, we put forth that projects generally fall into trouble for one or more of these reasons:

Poor Planning: 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.

Vague or open-ended project requirements are a recipe for trouble in most situations unless your organization 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, potentially derailing the project.

Misaligned Expectations: Stakeholder’s expectations often change throughout a project’s life. Indeed, stakeholders themselves, including the sponsor, often change. Do you continue to pay attention to changing needs and changing stakeholders? When new people come on board, and/or the organization needs to change direction, project managers need to respond or are prone to sway into trouble.

Have you worked on or known of a project where key stakeholders have suggested changes very late in the project? Late changes, or the potential for them, can signal trouble quite quickly. A project should have a natural cycle that allows stakeholder’s “constructive feedback” and input early, and to taper off as the project progresses through execution.

Ineffective Risk Management: Risk management should underpin all project activities. Remember that risks can be positive (opportunities) as well as negative; however, there is no such thing as “positive trouble.”

All trouble is bad. Risk management is not just about maintaining a risk register. It is about considering all risks, and devising ways—as a team—to categorize risks, devise ways to respond to them, agree on these responses and put actions into place to track them.

Risks are related to all aspects of projects—schedule, budget, safety, quality and everything else. Ineffective risk management occurs when the project fails to carry out these activities properly.

Trouble on projects can arise from the “unknown unknowns.” Therefore, management and contingency reserves planning should be included in your risk response planning.

What steps can a project manager take to steer a project back on course if it finds itself in troubled waters? Depending on the type of organization you work in, and the authority granted to you, the exact tasks will vary. Below are a few “corrective actions” that can span most types of organizations.

1. Early detection. Try to prevent the project from straying into trouble! Projects do not normally fall immediately into trouble; they “take a path toward it.” Having a system and routines in place to provide early detection is key to limiting the impact when projects begin to display telltale signs of trouble. A project manager must be willing to “sound the alarm bell” and know that he or she has the support of the project’s key stakeholders to implement early corrective actions.

2. Accept responsibility. The project manager and others must accept the responsibility for the project being off course (within their extent to control it). The project manager must also take responsibility for getting the project back on track—with the help of the right stakeholders. Management may need to help the project manager overcome the problems, perhaps with a risk response team that works alongside the main project team.

3. Be flexible and open to feedback. Every project has a unique set of stakeholder and project team members. What may have worked well for you in previous projects may not work best for your current situation. Be willing to solicit feedback from your team and adapt the workings of your project as needed.

4. Be willing to re-contract or re-baseline. This is especially true if expectations have been missed. Consider the steps and processes used to identify, prioritize and agree on a collective set of project expectations. If needed, conduct a thorough review and be willing to go back to “square one” and revisit the business case for the project, ask “Does it still align to strategy objectives?” and “Is the project still worth undertaking?”

If you work on many projects, chances are you will be, or have been, involved in a poorly performing project at some point in your career. Keys to limiting the damage are to know how to spot the signs and to “stop the rot” early if you can.

If it does happen to you, try stepping back and looking for the root causes of the problem, don’t fall prey to rash reactions, and determine solid ways to address the problem or trouble proactively.

Denial can be a powerful force preventing you from acting. Keep close communication with your project stakeholders, be open about things, and if you have to implement a mitigation plan, make sure you keep track of actions. As positive progress starts to occur, let stakeholders know how things are shaping up—hopefully for the better.

Gary Hamilton, PMI Community Post

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