The Project Whisperer: How to Spot a Troubled Project Before…

by PH Lohnes, PMP

Dealing with troubled projects is indeed a noble and necessary pursuit in the project management discipline; however, more important is the ability to spot the precursors that a project exhibits that may lead to the eventuality of it becoming distressed. Can one review a project and discover these markers? Are there markers in the first place?

The resounding answer is YES! Speaking with many trouble project managers as well as drawing on personal experience, there are four common characteristics that most of the “off the track” projects seem to exhibit. These four tracers, as they can be considered, are:

  1. Lack of objectivity
  2. Lack of discipline
  3. Lack of transparency, and
  4. Lack of experience

A most significant point to understand is a combinatorial principle, paraphrased for our purposes, that the existence of one of the above tracers in a project does not mean the project will become problematic. However, a significant number of troubled projects exhibit most if not all of the tracers. So if we know the markers that show up in projects that are troubled, can we derive useful managerial information from these markers appearing in yet to be troubled projects?

Again, the resounding answer is YES! The whole purpose of project management is to manage the future activities of a coordinated network of interrelated tasks oriented towards a common goal. So if as a project manager, one begins to see the emergence of tracers that distressed projects exhibit, the logical course of action would be to determine the root cause of the tracer and prune it.

What are these precursors? Do they have physical manifestations? How can they be identified? Let’s take these questions in order, briefly in this article, and in more detail in subsequent issues.

Precursor #1: Lack of Objectivity

This can also be referred to as “project personalization.” This precursor occurs when team members, and most importantly, component managers such as leads and subject matter experts (SME) become personally or emotionally invested in the success of the project. This begins the process of project protection which usually leads to the blurring of objectivity.

Precursor #2: Lack of Discipline

One of the most common characteristics of failed projects was an exhibition of a low level of professionalism or discipline to adherence of industries standard practices. Inconsistent behavior in dealing with risks, issues, and problems is a manifestation of this precursor. This is referred to as “professional lethargy.” There are others which will be discussed in more detail.

Precursor #3: Lack of Transparency

By definition projects need to be open, forthcoming, and accurate about their status, performance, and progress. The hiding or obfuscation of project data cannot be tolerated for long since every project has a finite lifetime upon which its conclusion will reveal all problems and issues. Problems cannot be masked forever. As project team members become less transparent, the full data needed to make decisions on the project’s future cannot be considered reliable. This is referred to as “project fog.”

Precursor #4: Lack of Experience

In a previous issue of the Project Post-Gazette, this concept of siphoning off project management experience in order staff program and portfolio levels has been addressed. The reader is directly to the February 2013 Issue <link here>, The PPPM Roadmap column, to read about this precursor in more detail; however, suffice it to say, that most troubled projects are not staffed by highly experienced, well-skilled practitioners. These professionals or sometimes the sources of the project’s problems have left well before the project deteriorated being replaced with less experienced less well-healed individuals. This is NOT an indictment of all projects or programs or their mangers, just a simple observation.

Each of the next four articles in this series will deal with the four precursors, their sources, manifestations, and some solutions to their occurrences. While knowing how to handle troubled projects, an aggressive project whisperer should also know how to prevent them from becoming problematic initially. Remember, the old adage – “a risk in time, saves $2 million in public relations.”

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