Project reviews can help identify early warning signs

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Categories: events, pmi, research

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.

Keys showing past and futureHowever 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?

Posted on: June 06, 2011 03:53 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Great article! I've used project reviews/audits/health checks - whatever you choose to call them - on numerous occasions and the results have always been quite amazing. I start with a list of 125 questions about the planned change, the environment(s) within which the change will be implemented, the assets that can be leveraged or that will need to change to support the project and the conduct of the project itself.

I focus on the stakeholders because they're the folks who will determine the who, what, when, where and why of the planned change. Many project managers cringe at the thought of a project audit because they think their work is what's being examined. When they understand it's focused on all the stakeholders, the decision makers - which, of course, includes the project manager - they tend to get on side.

When they see the results - a stakeholder group that is in agreement on all aspects of the project, PM's are, invariably, ecstatic. It makes their jobs so much easier and hugely increases the chance of project success. Use comprehensive project reviews that focus on the stakeholders and enjoy the rewards they can deliver!

Drew - 125 questions! That's a long list! Would you be prepared to share a couple of the questions (or even the list itself)?

Hi Elizabeth, we do project reviews and quite rigorously during the course of the project in our org. Not done by a so called 3rd party but we do it via a centralised PM team. We have a series of questions which comprises of the audit and do it quite regularly (once every quarter preferably). Our questions cover all the PM aspects and include stakeholders too. Obviously the other ones cover scope, change, risk, issue etc. the normal PM job related. But I think as you have highlighted the more intrinsic ones are the key to see the early warning signs than the obvious PM related ones like unwillingness to conclude discussions or make decisions. I had done a prez a few months back on early identification of a failing project and had discussed the following points: -
Interest Levels
“No bad news”
Quality vs. Time and Cost
Governance or the lack of it
Resource allocation & diversion
Lack of Governance structure

Feedback/ inputs please. Thanks.

Elizabeth, that's the usual reaction, especially from PM's - 125 questions!!! The full 125 questions questionnaire takes about 2 hrs for each stakeholder the first time around. The justification - if you're going to spend millions on a business or technology change and you can't afford 2 hrs to answer some questions, we have a problem!

I have done dozens of these things and not once have I had a business stakeholder complain. In fact, they seem to relish the opportunity to comment on areas that they're usually not involved with.

I have made some downloads available on the Project Pre-Check web site for general consumption. They are usually password protected. Check out the Decision Framework Model and some of the questionnaires at

Drew, thanks for sharing this! If you can get through 125 questions in 2 hours it sounds as if the questions are reasonably short to answer. You're correct, though - if customers are going to spend that much on a system, they need to find the time to do it right first time.

Sunando: the key point for me in your list is the point you make about there being no bad news. The reviews should ideally only articulate things that the team are already aware of. There should be no surprises - and there won't be, if the team has managed expectations effectively. Thanks for sharing your list.

Elizabeth, re the 125 questions, stakeholders only have to respond with a number from 1 to 5, 1 being "I disagree" or "I don't know" and 5 being "I'm in complete agreement". I've done these one on one, in person and over the phone, as well as in group settings. They go quickly. As well, depending on the situation, I use a short form involving about 50 questions relating primarily to the planned change and the environments that will be affected. Those typically take well under an hour per stakeholder. What is most compelling though is the picture that emerges when you consolidate the responses from all the stakeholders. The stakeholders love it. They react positively to it and they are invariable enthusiastic about maintaining that consolidated view throughout the course of the project to ensure ongoing stakeholder agreement.

Drew, that sounds really good. I had pictured people giving open-ended answers, and knowing some of the people I have worked with on projects, that could take some time!

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