At the PMI Global Congress EMEA in Dublin last month Terry Williams spoke about his research into early warning signs on complex projects. Last week I wrote about what causes problems on projects. One of the things his research team considered was the role that external reviews have to play in uncovering those problems.
External reviews at all points in the project are useful. These provide a sense of legitimacy; comfort that you are doing the right thing. However, they need to be well focused, with guidelines. And of course it is not enough just to do a review and create a list of issues: issues have to be acted on as well.
However in some cases it was the process of doing the review was the most useful. The interview forced the project team to defend what was happening and therefore helped them uncover what was indefensible.
Having to justify the decisions made the project team question them and this process was identified as a good tool for flagging where things were going wrong.
Barriers to identifying early warning signs
You may expect warning signs to be successfully identified and dealt with in an environment where gut feel is taken seriously and reviews are carried out. But it is not like that everywhere.
Terry also shared some of the barriers to identifying early warning signs in projects. Here are some:
- A mismatch between project life cycles and strategic planning cycles; no alignment between annual budgeting and long term projects
- Methods are not well focused
- Effects of politics make you do the wrong thing. internal politics stop you seeing what's happening, and even if you do see it you won't say anything anyway
- Quality of team
- Being too optimistic
- Lack of a good business case
- Sponsors who have set up a project and then moved away leaving the team to get on with it.
- Lack of documentation
- Getting vague answers to critical questions
- When people work too much or too little
- Constant churn of people and those in acting positions (like Acting Marketing Director): they don't have ownership or the history to look out for problems
- Unfulfilled promises
- Frequently changing decisions.
I am not a big fan of organisational politics, and I often wish we could cut through the hidden agendas and just get things done. However, fast tracking projects through politics means you don't have time to assess early warning signs, Terry said.
What are the early warning signs?
As a result of their research the team was able to make lists of typical early warning signs by project stage. These are helpful guidelines for people doing project reviews - pointers for what to be looking for. The lists included:
During project set up
- Poor project definition
- Poorly developed business plan
- Sponsor with unclear expectations
- Inconsistent arguments about agenda
- Vague reasons for undertaking the project
In early stages of project
- Lack of a clear business case
- Deterioration of relationships within the team and with suppliers
- Incomplete docs
- Unwillingness to conclude discussions or make decisions
- Lack of competences in team
- Lack of clear roles and responsibilities
During project execution stage
- Frequently changing decisions
- Uneasy comments
- Strained atmosphere
- Not showing trust in project organisation
Do you do project reviews? If so, have you spotted any of these warning signs or any other signs that things might not be going to plan?