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April 10, 2014

Three Signs Your Project Might Fail

4 mins read

We’ve all been there – a few weeks or months into a project and things just don’t seem right. You can’t get the information you need, your team isn’t gelling, and no one seems happy. You aren’t sure what’s happening, but you have a nagging worry that your project could fail.

Even worse: it might have already failed.

At this point you might be asking yourself, how did we get here? What clues, signals, or signs did you miss along the way? It’s been said that up to 30% of all IT projects are canceled before they are completed. How can you avoid falling into that pattern?

Here are 3 signs that your project may fail and how you can get it back on track.

Sign #1: Your team doesn’t have the right skills

Requirements might be fuzzy; maybe the right people weren’t available, or maybe you made a mistake. Whatever the reason, if your team’s skills don’t match up with project needs, you’ve got a problem.

“It’s almost as if you have no business training at all.”
– Kramer’s Boss, Leland Seinfeld

Early adoption of Scrum-like cross-functional skill sets can help avoid this problem. Scrum emphasizes shared skills and responsibilities across the team. Initial implementation of Scrum is often uncomfortable for teams comfortable working in isolation. After a while, they’ll embrace learning new skills and become more productive.

What to do if it’s too late for this approach? Replacing your team wholesale runs the risk of losing institutional knowledge, so proceed with staffing changes carefully. A better approach is to bring individuals in one-by-one, before moving out current team members. Eventually, you’ll get the right mix.

Sign#2: Key stakeholders stop coming to meetings

How often do you start a meeting asking, “Is Sally Stakeholder coming?” When stakeholders or project sponsors don’t prioritize meetings, they aren’t interested and don’t think it’s important. The reason for this lack of interest in your meeting is a failure to address significant business problems. If the project isn’t perceived as valuable, no-one is coming to your meeting.

 “I’m kind of a big deal.”
– Ron Burgundy, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Your project is important. You know this, but perhaps that importance wasn’t communicated in terms of business value to your stakeholders.  Project outcomes must tie directly to what the organization does (mission), and must demonstrate value to all invested parties.

If they can’t see how a problem is solved, how an activity impacts the bottom line, or how something improves the business, leaders and stakeholders will focus on the things that do achieve those outcomes. If you want them in your meetings, your project needs to be one of those things.

To get them back, focus on the activities that provide the most value, and talk about them constantly. Socialize the importance of the activities to overall project outcomes at every possible opportunity. You’ll convince them over time, and in the process, re-convince yourself that you’re doing the right things.

Sign #3: Deliverables are consistently late

Individuals are the ultimate source of value. You know this. If stuff is late, even the most valuable team or team member becomes a liability, and your customer will get upset. You’re accountable for their work. So stop promising deliverables according to a pre-determined time-frame.

“It’s performance review day, company-wide. Last year, my performance review started with Michael asking me what my hopes and dreams were, and it ended with him telling me he could bench-press 190 pounds. So, I don’t really know what to expect.”

– Pam, The Office


How can you avoid missing deadlines? Start by estimating work, prioritizing what’s important, and re-setting expectations with your customer. The customer needs to drive the process of picking the most important activities. But that’s not enough.

You have to work with them to re-set priorities when the situation changes. Always expect things to change, and work that expectation into your planning process. By demonstrating your ability to adapt and be flexible, the customer will trust your ability drive value-driven outcomes, and will stop piling on new activities. As a result, your team can focus and finish what they’ve started.

If your team continues to miss deadlines, it’s time for a retrospective. The process of examining what happened in a structured and meaningful way enables the team to see why they missed the deadline, to understand the factors that impeded progress, and to chart a path around these things in the future.

What other signs have you seen that your project might be heading in the wrong direction?

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