Early warning signs in complex projects

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Categories: pmi, research

"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

•  Stakeholders

•  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.

•  Complexity

•  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

•  Group-think

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.

Posted on: June 02, 2011 05:49 PM | Permalink

Comments (3)

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Gut feel is really important, but it's a lot more reliable when dealing with smaller projects. I think that generally speaking the biggest problem with complex projects is often that PMs fail to break them down into smaller chunks. Then the bad gut feeling they have just comes from being overwhelmed with too much stuff to track and do.

Thanks for the article. I agree pretty much and I am actually going through a similar challenge in my current role. We have a big SAP transformation project which has been initiated with some poor planning and the biggest chalenge we are facing is trying to talk to the various groups of people and getting their buy in. A lack of proper governance is one of the key reasons I see at the start of a complex project a big hindrance. Obvious ones are the communication and interest levels (buy in) as I highlighted.

Dave, that's very insightful. The smaller the chunks, the easier it is to assess them independently. Gut feel is also more reliable in - dare I say it - project managers who know what they are doing. Inexperienced project managers may also get that overwhelming feeling, or no feeling at all, or not be able to interpret it correctly.

Sunando - good luck with your SAP implementation. One of the things I have found useful at the start of a big project is a scope document. As you say, lack of governance is a major hindrance, so best of luck with putting this in place retrospectively.

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