Project Health Check : 5 serious project warning signs

Posted on March 19, 2011 by

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As experienced change practitioners, I’m sure we’ve all worked on projects that have been difficult.  The unfortunate truth is that some projects gain so much momentum, they become “too big to fail”.  These projects steamroll their way through organizations, and have a tendency to displace anyone that dares to challenge them.

Doctor holding stethoscope

Projects benefit from "health checks". Look out for warning signs!

Sometimes when working closely on a project, it is difficult to see the warning signs.  However, it is worth carrying out a project “health check” every now and then, to check for danger signs.  If you see any significant warning signals, then you might need to take some serious (and unpopular) corrective action.  Five such signals are discussed below:

1. Experts are ignored:

Projects that are in trouble may choose to selectively ignore concerns raised by experts.  Inconvenient truths tend to be “parked” or “explained away” without further analysis. Even worse, the commitment of those raising the concerns may be questioned.  This tends to have an extremely negative effect – morale of the project team is likely to suffer as they don’t feel listened to.  And even worse, they may feel disinclined to raise concerns in the future.

Organizational solution: Organizations and projects should encourage their experts to speak up.  It is generally better to know the “cold hard facts”, and every member of the project team should be encouraged to share their constructive concerns. This issue will cease if an organization proactively fosters accountability, whilst also fostering a culture of continuous improvement and learning. And remember: A project maverick is not a heretic!

2. Business cases are “re-worked”:

Business cases should be a central tool used by organizations to ensure that only profitable projects are run.  In some cases, other “hidden agendas” may be at play, and the project team might be asked to use some “creative licence” to make a business case look profitable.   This often happens in organizations where there is little accountability for the realization of project benefits.

Organizational solution: Organizations can stop this happening by encouraging and valuing true accountability, from project sponsor downwards.  The sponsor should be accountable for the delivery of benefits as well as the delivery of the project. Each project team member should be empowered to challenge decisions which seem to contradict the business case or scope.  Empowerment, accountability and integrity are the three key values that will prevent this situation from occurring in the first place.

3. Unclear objectives or scope:

One of the most serious warning signs on a project is a lack of scope.  If you start work on a project, and scope or objectives are not clear, then you are in for a rough ride.  This suggests that there has not been adequate attention paid to the foundations of the project, and in most cases it will be beneficial to step back and agree the scope.  If this doesn’t happen, there is a significant danger that the solution will be delivered in a way that does not meet expectations, and does not maximize return on investment.

Organizational solution: If scope or objectives are unclear, the only way to address this is to firm them up.  Good governance should stop this happening in the first place, but a project has slipped through then the project team should work to reach a consensus, and then move forward.  This might cost time in the short term, but it will save significant time in the long term, as it reduces the risk of misunderstandings and miscommunication over scope.

4. “Risks and issues” only exist on a log:

Embedding risk management techniques leads to more successful projects.  A significant project warning sign is RAID (risk, issue, assumption, dependency) logs that have not been maintained and are not being followed up.  This suggests that risk management is happening only “On paper”.   Each risk should be owned, and should have a defined strategy for dealing with it.  If this isn’t the case, then corrective action should be taken.

Organizational solution: The only solution to this problem is to ensure the project manager is actively controlling risks, issues, assumptions and dependencies.  If they are not, organizations should encourage and compel them to do so!

5. The project schedule doesn’t exist or is out of date:

A project and programme schedule should be a central communications tool.  Ultimately, this is a central tool that ensures everyone knows what tasks they need to complete, and what the deadline is.  A great way of carrying out a health-check on a project is to ask a random member of the project team where the project schedule is located, and ask them to show you a copy.  If they can’t, or if it is out of date, then you have uncovered a communication problem.

Organizational solution: Good governance and project discipline should ensure that all projects have a schedule that is fit-for-purpose.  Ask questions to ensure that a schedule is in place, and if it is absent then ensure it is created as soon as possible!

Conclusion

I see these warning signs as the “Big 5”, though there are many others that may surface on a project, and as change practitioners it’s important for us to recognise them and take any necessary corrective action.  Unfortunately, the corrective action is rarely palatable.  The most important thing we can do is to constructively challenge ourselves and our project colleagues, and ensure they are dealing with the cold hard facts.  We should escalate where necessary, and ensure that facts are not hidden and experts are not ignored.

Positive and proactive challenge and escalation is rarely popular, but is necessary to ensure that organisations get the best from their projects.  Good luck!

Have you worked on projects and seen these (or any other) warning signs?  Do you have any further examples?  I’d love to hear from you – feel free to contact me directly or leave a comment below.



About the author : Adrian Reed is a UK based Lead Business Analyst, author, speaker and qualified practitioner of change. If you enjoyed this article, you can follow Adrian on Twitter or read his personal blog.