Project Management – Dealing with Doomed Projects

Most of us hate to admit that things aren’t working out as planned. But, if you are in project management long enough, you will get to experience a project cancellation. Sometimes, you can tell early on that a project has the potential to go very wrong. Warning signs include:

  • Lack of ownership at the highest level of the organization
  • Inadequate resources committed at the start of the project
  • Team infighting and poor communication
  • Going over budget with no clear timeline for completion
  • Constant delays in completing schedule milestones
  • Scope and final goal keep changing

Those final 3 issues can usually be avoided with appropriate planning. However, sometimes you inherit a project from a previous PM that’s already halfway down the road to nowhere. In that case, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that you will have to work twice as hard to breathe life back into the project (if that’s even possible). The good news is that you can blame everything that’s gone wrong so far on your predecessor. You can do this without sounding whiny if you offer real solutions to the problems you point out.

What If You Can’t Save a Project?

If obstacles such as high costs, poor design or execution, and changing objectives can’t be overcome or worked around, it may be best to shut things down. This is a time when your project management communication skills need to be at their best. A cancelled project can affect morale throughout your organization. Be sure to solicit input from your full team and other stakeholders before moving forward with shutting down a project. That way, you will all be in agreement and you won’t overlook any possible solutions that could save the project.

Follow Proper Cancellation Protocol

Keeping relationships intact and conserving resources are the two main priorities in the actual cancellation process. If you are performing the project for a client, they should be involved at each step so they don’t feel like it is all out of their control. If you need to cancel orders with vendors, do this as soon as possible so they aren’t devoting production capacity to your project and counting on revenue that’s not going to materialize. When possible, identify ways to reuse project resources for other scheduled or future projects. Be sure to still recognize and reward team members for their contributions – it’s usually not their fault that things went wrong.

Add a Kill Switch in Advance Next Time

One part of project management planning that doesn’t get a lot of attention is setting parameters that will determine when a project should be shut down. This concept should be evaluated during risk management planning. You should be able to identify a specific point when the ROI for a project just isn’t going to be worth it. This could be a dollar amount. Or, it could be a timeline. For example, your organization’s goal might be to bring a certain product or service to market before a competitor. If you fall 12 months behind, the whole project might become moot. Rerouting project resources to something that’s more likely to be a “winner” could be the most strategic choice.

Don’t Get Caught Up in Emotions

Determining the criteria for discontinuing a project ahead of time (and sticking to it) makes it easier to actually pull the trigger if the time comes. Otherwise, you may get caught up in a cycle of justifying more and more expenditures on a project that’s a money pit. Like the song says “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em”. Getting emotionally involved in a project and having your pride hurt when you have to let go can be tough. But the sooner you put a failure behind you, the sooner you can start working on your next success.

Agile Techniques That Mesh With Traditional Project Management

Agile project management is an iterative approach that focuses on achieving project objectives in distinct stages. It is typically used in the software development industry but has some applications in other fields as well. When the overall scope and specific deliverables are likely to change throughout the lifecycle of a project, an agile approach can make it easier to keep moving forward. This methodology is often best suited for use with small to mid-sized projects. For large scale projects with well-defined deliverables and a high degree of complexity, the agile approach tends to be less useful. However, this doesn’t mean certain features from the agile “toolbox” can’t still be used.

Learn as You Go

You might consider a blended approach that involves traditional waterfall and agile methods. For example, regular meetings that include a review of all lessons learned in the previous week are a core feature of agile project management that can be incorporated into many projects. Since stakeholder feedback is a key factor in compiling lessons learned, the project’s communication management plan must include a way to collect this feedback on an ongoing basis. So, this is an ideal option for projects that involve a client who likes a very “hands on” role.

Quality Takes Center Stage

The agile method also relies heavily on quality control at each stage (since software must be tested and debugged). This is another area where PMs in traditional industries would do well to pay attention. Project quality management should be designed to monitor project deliverables at crucial junctures. Let’s say component B’s performance is predicated on the quality of component A. To avoid delays and increased costs, a quality check should be performed during or immediately after the schedule activity that results in the completion of component A. This type of quality assurance plan can be developed based on an activity sequencing diagram.

Adaptation Requires Flexibility

No matter how thoroughly you plan, there will always be issues that require change requests. With an agile attitude, your team doesn’t have to view these as setbacks. Instead, each modification to the project plan can be seen as an opportunity for brainstorming and problem solving. A project management team that learns to collaborate is more likely to increase the value of a project through creative solutions rather than simply suggesting stop-gap measure to keep the whole thing from falling apart. To make this work, a leadership style that focuses on developing team members rather than simply issuing instructions is essential. In the long run, companies that feature a collaborative environment are almost certain to outperform their competition. So, this is one aspect of the agile method that should be adopted by all businesses that want to remain viable in today’s marketplace.

Managing People When You’re Not A “People” Person

As a PM, you know that project management almost always involves a lot of “people management”. However, not every effective project manager has a particularly charismatic personality. For example, you might be a great strategist, highly focused, patient, organized, self-disciplined, and determined to succeed. These are all qualities that go into making a good PM. One important attribute missing from that list is “likability”. That’s because you don’t really need to be a people person to do your job well. What you do have to be is a good communicator. People skills are called “skills” for a reason. They are something you can learn – you don’t have to be born with this talent.

Perception is Reality

If you tend to run into problems with people responding negatively to you, there are steps you can take to change this. You won’t need to transform your personality either. You just need to alter how people perceive you. That’s about communicating the best aspects of yourself – your strengths rather than your weaknesses.

For example, if you tend to be a very literal person, you may have difficulty understanding what people are really saying when they beat around the bush. This may give you a reputation for being a poor listener (if you make mistaken assumptions about what people mean). Or, you could be thought of as brusque if you tell people to “just get to the point already!” Using communication skills such as reflective listening allows you to clarify what’s being said while making the other person feel valued and respected. Then, you get the information you need and they come away thinking you’re a great manager to work with.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Every individual has a different communication style. However, these tend to fall into one of a few categories. An assessment program such as DISC can help you learn to recognize these behavioral patterns in yourself and in others (Dominant, Influential, Steady, and Conscientious). This is very helpful when you are managing a large, diverse project management team.

For example, a Dominant person may want to address factual issues relating to a project rather than focusing on how a particular decision makes others feel. An Influential individual responds when you start out with friendly conversation before giving instructions for a particular task. A Steady person appreciates being given clear objectives to accomplish on a project. Conscientious people should receive early warning of any upcoming changes to scheduling or procedures so they have time to adjust.

What Can You Expect?

The benefits of learning people skills extend into every aspect of project management. You will know that you are building your ability in this area when:

  • You experience fewer misunderstandings with all groups of project stakeholders
  • Team members ask plenty of questions and participate fully in meetings
  • You find out quickly whenever a problem crops up
  • Peers and superiors follow your recommendations more frequently
  • Subordinates carry out schedule activities more effectively with fewer errors and delays