Why Projects Fail – The Early Indicators – Part 3

To complete my mini-series on the early indicators of why projects fail, this month I write about the topics of:

  • Communications Management
  • Technology Issues
  • Contractual Issues
  • Planning & Estimating
  • Management / Governance

A reminder of the topics covered over the last two blogs:

  • Change Control
  • Stakeholder Management
  • Financial Management
  • Requirements, Architecture & Data

Communications Management

80% of a Project Manager’s time is spent communicating; therefore, to be an effective Project Manager with a successful project you must have good communications skills. Think through the communication requirements for your project and plan for the most effective communications.

Who needs to be communicated to, using what method and how frequently.

Can your sponsor explain clearly to the team what the point of the new system is?

Projects that are not communicating, don’t have agendas for meetings, minutes, actions or even the attention of people in the meeting are at risk.

Technical Issues

Technical issues along with any other issues will be entered into the Issues Log, which allows you to do the following:

  • Have a safe and reliable method for the team to raise issues.
  • Track and assign responsibility to specific people for each issue.
  • Analyse and prioritize issues more easily.
  • Record issue resolution for future reference and project learning.
  • Monitor overall project health and status.

Consider the technology selection process, does it anticipate accurate user demand or data volumes.

What technological problems could be encountered during the project?

Technical requirements are not clear or approved.

Business users not included in the technology choice.

Training plans not developed to enable users to effectively use the solution.

Contractual Issues

  • Lack of sponsorship
  • Sales team sign a blood contract where margins are so thin that there is no margin for error in the delivery phase
  • The lack of a clear and agreed acceptance criteria for the completion of the project
  • Fundamentals not being in place at the contract signing with third parties and contractors, like requirements, method, roles and responsibilities, big bang deliver / no incremental or iterative delivery

Planning & Estimating

Detail of the project plan – Is the plan a well thought through document, with known resources in place, or is it little more than a PowerPoint slide?

How has the time for the activities on the plan been estimated?  Which method has been used (bottom up (detailed planning) / top down (more high level estimates)) a combination of both works best in my experience.

Estimating methodology – Is the plan built bottom-up from a recognised estimating model?  Does actual effort suggest that the estimating model is accurate in its predictions?

Planning and accurately reporting against the plan will show any signs of a project slipping. The key is ensuring any slippage that cannot be mitigated gets escalated.

Stability of the project plan – Did the plan of 4 weeks ago look the same as the plan today?  A plan that is always changing and compressing is obviously likely to be in trouble.

When initial delivery is over a year away.  It is too far away for people to recognise what they do is part of the delivery or to recognise issues.  Suggest that the delivery is broken down into smaller chunks.  This demonstrates progress, enhances buy-in and allows more controlled management or each phase as it is smaller.

Project Plan – Not having an interlocked and agreed project plan, to ensure all parties and services are delivered as and when required.

Project commencement not planned with the correct level of set-up & communication, using the following activities:

  • Read statement of work
  • Review and understand lessons learnt from any previous projects
  • Secure resources
  • Define the project charter
  • Conduct a Method Adoption Workshop
  • Talk to stakeholders

Resource Bound e.g. Not provided with the right resources at the right time.

Assumptions not clear and communicated

Schedule not accurately estimated by leads of teams doing the work

Dependencies dates and contents not agreed by whole team

Management / Governance

Lack of executive sponsorship and drive for the project – this came up more than any other indicator when surveying people.

Project sponsor is not 100% committed to project or project funding is not fully secured.

When the sponsor and team can’t explain clearly to the interested parties what the point of the project is.

When the Project Manager (PM) spends all their time in meetings with the client and/or writing up status reports.  The PM needs time to manage, support and provide leadership to the team amongst other things.

Has the PM ever run a project of this size / nature before?

Considering the team

  • Does the team really have skills in the chosen technologies?
  • Are all the resources in place?
  • Are the team using a recognised and understood methodology?
  • Is there a clear point of ownership within the team for overall solution design, i.e. do we have a solution architect? If not, then I would always worry. – Solution Architect definition: Translates requirements into the architecture for the solution, describing the solution though the architecture and design artifacts.
  • Do the main team know exactly what any offshore/third party team are doing and has responsibility for?
  • If using external off-site/off-shore resources is there daily communication? Have the main team visited any external teams?  Or if not, then have the other teams visited the main team? – If no, to any of these then expect trouble

A few other key points to consider:

  • Issues take a long time to resolve
  • Ineffective escalation process
  • Unreasonable expectations
  • Churn at the senior stakeholder level
  • Team, PM or management pay lip service to data governance and business change manage
  • Meetings with no agenda
  • Meetings with no actions
  • Meetings with no minutes
  • Non-follow up of meetings actions / minutes
  • Decision making by committee (no roles and responsibilities or accountability)

Ideas on how to avoid the pitfalls

Over my 3 articles I have explained some of the key areas where your projects could potentially get into trouble. Fundamentally if you are successfully managing risks, issues, plan and track progress accurately against that plan and report progress and issues regularly, you will see the signs of a project slipping where you have no mitigation to recover to position.  The key then is ensuring slippage it gets escalated.

  • Effectively track and manage a projects status, issues and risks.
  • Use and understand methodologies
  • Report regularly
  • Plan accurately

Good luck!


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