After spending many years of my professional life managing traditional/Waterfall projects, programs, and PMO’s for different organizations, I have learned a few techniques for identifying red flags that usually create big problems for projects. Since refocusing my energy on applying Agile techniques for executing projects, I now realize that there are a few scenarios that may be avoided by changing the approach for managing work. Some of these may be very obvious to you, but others may spark some additional interest. Either way, I encourage you to keep an open mind and consider all your options when you dive head-first into solving project issues.
- Projects consistently run late
If you have a fixed-scope project, more than likely, you also have a fixed budget, which means you may be in a tough situation where you are also expected to deliver the project by a specific date. In my experience, this often leads to projects that run longer than expected and cost more than planned. If possible, it may benefit everyone in this situation to explore a fixed-budget/fixed-date plan with a flexible scope, which can be adjusted based on real-world learnings.
- Requirements keep changing / Customer cannot decide what they want
Many of the projects I managed included a heavy change management process that ultimately discouraged change in order to protect the scope. This is a mechanism to try to minimize changes to the project scope which typically lead to cost and schedule overrun. However, most business domains are much more dynamic and unpredictable than we expect, and change will occur no matter what, so we should try to find ways to manage change more effectively instead of trying to avoid them. Having a flexible/negotiable scope in one technique that could make things simpler. Another way to handle change is to keep scope small and execute in small phases/increments; this allows the customer and sponsor opportunities to introduce change at natural checkpoints within the project lifecycle.
- True state of the project is difficult to understand
Have you ever seen a project status report that shows everything is “Green”, meaning on-schedule and on-budget, but you have yet to see any real evidence of a working product? How comfortable are you in that situation? Would you feel more confident about how things are progressing if you can at least see something tangible? Working in smaller increments and demonstrating real progress can build team morale and customer satisfaction, even if what is being shown isn’t a finished product.
- State of funding is uncertain
If you are like me, you have had to manage a project on shoe-string budget, and each week, the project sponsor reminds you that he/she cannot give you another dime, so you must make things work out. Does that sound familiar? What can you do in this situation?
If your project has a risk of funding being cut or pulled at any time, that’s a great incentive to make sure your team is working on the highest priority functionality first. Help your sponsor understand that working in small increments to build/test/deliver usable functionality early and often will ensure you are delivering value, while also building the case for additional funding!
- Team members appear to lose focus or procrastinate on their tasks
How many times have you seen team members waiting until the last day to finish a task that they could have completed a week ago? Long, extended projects seem to have this kind of effect on people. Since the next big milestone is months away, there’s no rush to get the work done as early as possible. There’s nobody really checking on the work anyways, and you can always catch up later, right? You may have heard of “Parkinson’s Law”, in which the amount of effort expands to fill the time that is given. Or, you may be familiar with “Student Syndrome”, where the worker delays the work until the last possible moment. Both of these can introduce significant risk to your project.
So what can you do about this? You might consider shortening the project lifecycle to improve focus and accountability. Most of us need a goal to shoot for in order to maintain a high level of engagement and sense of urgency.
To wrap up this article, even if you are not ready to adopt Agile practices wholesale and go through a transformation of your entire organization, there are small changes that you can try to improve your project success rate.