Starting out as project managers, we begin to recognize the signals that point to project risks. Initially, these signals come in the form of status reports, work plans and delivery metrics. As we gain experience, we learn to sense additional risk signals that come from observation and dialog. And those signals originate from project managers themselves.
These signals sometimes go unheeded because the ability to act on them can typically be constrained. For example, there is fear of making project customers unhappy if you raise objections, unrealistic expectations and a false belief that these types of messages will somehow motivate the project team.
In my experience, here are some of the signals that have pointed to a project headed down the wrong path:
1. "We'll start the project at the kickoff meeting."
Many times, important project mobilization activities tend to be ignored in the haste to begin a project with a large group meeting. This fixation on the kickoff meeting causes key mobilization tasks to fall behind. Early action on staffing plans, on-boarding processes and communication mechanisms before the kickoff meeting are more important than making sure the chocolate chip cookies arrive in time.
2. "This project WILL finish on time and budget."
This signal typically appears at the first sign of progress or cost slippage. As opposed to dealing with the root cause of the slippage, many times project managers will shrink scope to meet time and budget. Reducing scope has the effect of reducing the overall value proposition for the project. Address this tendency by allocating sufficient time early in the project to identify business success criteria independent of schedule and costs.
3. "The CEO is the sponsor for this project or program."
Name-dropping typically emerges when there is a conflict over resources needed by multiple projects. Project managers hope that by presenting the CEO or other executive as a sponsor, it will create commitment to the project. However, CEO's and other executives usually do not have the luxury of time to serve as a sponsor on a project. Leverage stakeholder management activities such as a level of funding approval list to confirm the primary sponsors for the project.
4. "We are four weeks behind schedule, but we'll make it up in the next phase."
Unless there is a large change of scope, one of the more the unfortunate laws of physics for projects is that any schedule slippage is likely to carry over to the next phase. The best approach is to be transparent about the schedule delay. By making the slippage transparent, you enable leadership team attention and corrective actions.
5. "I feel green."
A green status indicator in a project report typically means that no issues are present. However, a green status indicator does not always tell the complete story.
For example, despite deliverable dates that were slipping on one project, the project manager continued to declare a green status indicator. In an executive steering committee meeting, the leadership team challenged the project report. The project manager said, "I know the deliverable dates are slipping but I'm still feeling green." To promote project team and leadership confidence, employ objective project metrics such as planned vs. actual deliverable dates or earned value analysis to show the true status of the project.
While tools, approaches and processes help manage delivery risk, recognize these signals and take the right steps to act on them.
What have you found to be good examples of signals that point to risks on projects?