by Phillip Smith
Project planning is an exercise in forecasting. The idea is to take the variables you can account for and try to anticipate any issues that might rain on (or dry up) your project’s progress toward a smooth conclusion. Forecasts are rarely perfect, which is why we have project managers still assigned to projects even after the plans are built. We need the PM’s there to lead teams through time and change and keep the project in scope.
That’s why the real mark of a good PM is discernment on the fly. PM’s, while leading their teams, must be able to distinguish the difference between normal variation from plan and real trouble–and be able to recognize the difference between the two in time to mitigate and control. Sometimes re-planning is required, but the goal in most instances should be to return to the original plan whenever possible.
So how do you know the difference between normal variation and real trouble in a project? A textbook answer would involve the use of metrics plans. If defects (severity, volume), schedule variation, budget, or productivity reach beyond established thresholds, then corrective action must be taken. The metrics required to monitor the project are expensive, and we don’t all have them available to us. So many PM’s are working without formal metrics, and must diagnose real trouble before it is too late. Fortunately, there are some general rules of thumb. Ailing projects have some common symptoms, many of which formal metrics account for and an observant PM can easily identify. Here’s what to watch for:
Classic Symptoms of an Ailing Project
High defect rate
Unexpected costs, or lack of expected costs
Low team morale or other HR issues
A good PM is constantly on the watch for these symptoms, and in fact spends a lot of time listening and keeping an open mind to prevent missing out on the obvious. Even without metrics in place, the PM can see that something is not right if scope, schedule, budget, and quality are not on target with expectations. Clients also pick up on these things; even if they aren’t immediately aware of specific issues, they may sense uneasiness on the part of the team or the PM, and the problem can snowball when team morale and the client’s confidence in the project are undermined. A good project manager must be tuned in to pick up on the clues, comments, and frustrations that are available to the good listener.
(If you would like to add to my list of symptoms, please reply to this article.)
Project Health Checks
Here’s where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You can use this prevention-oriented approach to sense “bad weather” before symptoms and re-planning occur. When you create your project plan, add in health checks. Health checks are not a new idea. I want to emphasize them here because they are often sacrificed so that PM’s will have more time to deal with symptoms. That’s sort of like not putting gas in your car because you are too busy pushing it.
PM’s should schedule frequent, informal health checks—brief feedback meetings that involve sitting down with their tech leads, business analysts, quality assurance leads, and clients, to make sure that no classic root causes for project trouble are present. Here are some of the most notorious:
Classic Root Causes of Trouble
Wrong people assigned to tasks or to the team
Conflicting organizational priorities
Lack of clear, accurate, complete, and realistic project objectives
Lack of “the right” objectives
Culture not embracing the SDLC
I’m sure there are others, and I’d like to know if you have some to add. I’ll address the classic root causes of derailed projects (and what to do about them) in my next article.