"We should have seen it coming."
Have you ever said that or felt that on a project?
Terry Williams spoke about his research into early warning signs on complex projects at the PMI Global Congress EMEA in Dublin recently. The researchers looked at how successful project assessments are in uncovering the warning signs that something is going wrong on the project.
They set out to discover what the most important early warning signs are, and what to look for in different contexts. Terry specifically focused on complex projects. "A complex project is one where you don't understand how the inputs generate the outputs," he said.
The team went in to 14 organisations and interviewed people about what went wrong in their complex projects. The issues they asked about included:
• Political processes and reasons for projects
• Business case
• Risks and opportunities
• How you learn lessons from other projects, and the difference between lessons identified and lessons learned.
This last point was interesting. A public sector project lessons learned report included the advice that future projects needed a strong leader. That's not rocket science. But when the researchers dug into the reasons why the lack of leadership had been an issue on this project they found out all the political reasons behind it, which is much more useful. Understanding the context and the narrative around the lessons is helpful, Terry said.
He cited the NASA lessons learned database which I also refer people to when I give talks - it is a great example of managing organisational knowledge.
What causes the problems?
Problems on projects are caused by all kinds of things, and the researchers uncovered some common themes:
• Overly ambitious plans
• Development of new technology
• Difficulty of stopping projects when they have gathered steam.
• People in senior roles forgetting what managing projects is like as they have moved to levels in the organisation where they have no recent relevant operational experience
Then they took a step back and looked at what warning signs came before these problems.
The researchers saw that early warning signs include 'gut feel' and non-verbal, people-related issues. "Early warning signs may be evident from people's behaviour," Terry said.
Unfortunately, project managers and executives don't always pick up on these signs, or know what to do if they notice them. And the more complex the project, the more likely they are to ignore them.
Half of the companies taking part in the research distinguished what a complex project was. They had guidelines set by the company specifying what 'complex' meant for them.
"We got this feeling that people doing complex projects define more things to look at and this takes away reliance on gut feel," Terry explained. "The more complicated guidance distracted you from using gut feel."
The more structured and complicated the organisational structure, the harder it is to allow soft interpretations of concerns.
Next time I’ll be looking at the value of using external reviews to assess early warning signs on complex projects.