Anyone that has worked on projects long enough understands that it is not unheard of to have a project get off track. There are many modalities of defining “off track” and several factors that can contribute to it. The commonality in all of these is that often times, it is difficult to rein a project in, once it has started to derail. In addition, the client sometimes isn’t aware of the nuances of the “how this has happened’. Because of this, it is a sore point in the relationship that must be soothed.
1. Poor Planning
A well planned project is critical to success. This takes a joint effort from both the project manager, development team and the stakeholders. The foundation of this is communication. Without a detailed plan, there are always things that slip through the cracks. This can lead to either key aspects of the project being missed until it is realized somewhere down the line, where discovery of that aspect is either disruptive to the schedule or the cost of the project. The easiest way to avoid this is to make sure, at the onset, the project plan is as detailed as possible. This includes steps for approval, rework, testing, ordering with delivery of materials, etc. Make sure all dependencies are clear and linked. Run as much as possible in parallel. Ensure every part of the plan has resources assigned to it, and they have signed off on their responsibility. Every project plan should be reviewed with the team, including all resources and key stakeholders. When I say with the team, it is not one on one, but rather all together, either in the same room, or using a shared screen. This allows for any questions, conflicts or missed dependencies to be addressed. But more importantly, it allows for every team member and stakeholder to understand the impact of every task on the outcome. And finally, it allows for accountability as a team on a personal level.
So, the plan is perfect, but then how can it get derailed? Unfortunately there are many things we can’t control. Whether it’s a sick developer, a scope change, or equipment failure, sometimes stuff happens. So it may be a perfect plan, but implementation might impact that plan. The most important activity on getting it back on track when a timeline is impacted is to communicate to the team. Notice how I said team. With a strong team, the responsibility of getting a derailed project back on track involves the entire team. So as soon as a project has an issue that may delay it, call the team together, and as a team, work to figure out a way to cut time in other places. This is only possible with a detailed project plan that shows dependencies. It is also only possible if there is a strong team attitude among the team members. To ensure this, keep in mind that blaming and pointing fingers does not solve the problem. It only wastes time. As a team, finding a solution will allow the project to get back on track quickly and efficiently.
I would have to say that poor communication can derail a project at any point of a project. And without change, it will continue to run off the track. From day one of a project, it is the responsibility of the project manner to do their best to ensure communication is excellent. But they cannot do this alone. It takes everyone on the team to be committed to this. After all, a project manager cannot know what isn’t being said. Yet, it is the duty of the project manager to set the stage for open and honest communication. This includes clearly stating expectations of how the project will be run, how communication will be handled, how the team should interact and when and how issues are communicated and handled. No one on the team should ever worry about how a problem that arises will be received. The team should understand that the sooner an issue is raised, the sooner it is resolved. But it is also critical that the team understand that they all are responsible for coming up with a solution, whether it is in their area of expertise or not. Below are some tips on how to excel in communication, to ensure a relatively smooth project.
- Create a detailed specification that maps out the expectations of the deliverables.
- Review the specification (and any other critical documents) as a team. Ask as many questions as needed to clarify any gaps that may exist in the details.
- Following every meeting, send out detailed notes/minutes with action items, due dates, any critical changes.
- Document and get approval for any scope change, including changes to timeline and budget.
- Solve issues as a team with all team members being equal contributors.
- When issues arise, solve the problem, don’t look for blame. Do post mortems at the end of the project and review at the beginning of each project to make sure lessons learned are implemented.
- Leave egos outside. Stress the importance of the team and excelling as a team. Any criticism is to create the best outcomes, not to personally impact anyone. Likewise, all positive achievement is shared by the team.
- As the project manager, make sure that all aspects of the project are running smoothly on a regular basis. Don’t wait for members to come to you with updates. Be personable and continually make sure the door to communication is open.
- Confirmation emails and update emails to the team whenever discussions occur that may impact the project, resources or budget.
When communication is the reason a project gets derailed, the first line of business is to regroup as a team and emphasize the team spirit. Without placing blame on where the gap occurred, find out if there are missing lines of communication and get suggestions from the team on how to improve it. Also, any impact on the schedule or budget needs to be communicated to the stakeholders.
3. Scope Creep
When there is scope creep, is the project really derailed? I think it depends on perception. And perception is set by expectations communicated to the team and the stakeholders. In almost every project, there are changes to scope, new features added, changes to specification or new insight gained that redirects the scope. These are not necessarily bad. But if there is scope creep, it needs to be handled as what it is, potential changes to the plan. There are a couple of ways this can be handled. The initial plan can be maintained, and a new plan (Phase II) can be run in serial to or parallel to the initial plan. Which of these is one depends on the changes and how they impact the project, schedule or resources. If the new changes are mandatory to the project launch, then the plan and specification need to be modified to reflect the changes. All of this, and the reasons for it need to be documented, clearly communicated and signed off on by the team and the stakeholders. This is critical. If this does not happen, it is almost guaranteed that at some point, some of the stakeholders will see the project as late or behind schedule, over budgeted, etc. This is not the case, and thus this must be very clearly communicated and signed-off on.
4. Lack of Accountability
One might think that by having a strong team mentality, with no finger pointing and joint responsibility of resolution, that it removes individual accountability. In reality it does the opposite. Since communication is transparent and the plan is clear, including roles and responsibilities, the oversight of the team allows for increased accountability. The team and the individuals have signed off on the plan, and each member knows where responsibilities lie. The increased transparency actually adds an increased feeling of responsibility and lack of desire to “let the team down”. If there is an issue with tasks not being completed on time, the easiest way to resolve this is by bringing the team together to find out why and how to resolve it. This should be done sooner rather than later. It may mean updating the schedule to account for changing resources, delays due to research needed, etc. Or it may mean adding resources, shifting priorities or providing support. As long as every team member believes that they are supported by the team, the level of accountability will increase. At this point, I will emphasize again the need to communicate any change in plan to stakeholders that will impact schedule, budget or end results.
6. Conflicting or Unclear Goals
The main reason to have the entire team and stakeholders involved in planning is ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to goals. The goals need to be clear in the specification, which is reviewed and signed off on by the team and stakeholders. Open communication and transparency allow for any questions to be asked from the beginning so that there is no confusion. If there are conflicts in goals, then that should be worked out in the beginning. This is why detailing the project is so critical. At any time that goals change then the entire team and all stakeholders need to be made aware of the change and sign off on what it will take to achieve the new goals. The discussion needs to be had, with the entire team on the impact of the changes on the overall goal of the project in addition to the sub-goals. A risk assessment, along with prioritization should be done to make sure that the team and stakeholders understand the impact. Once these are communicated, the team and stakeholders should do a final sign off on any changes.
From the list of things that can derail a project, the key to all of them is communication. As long as that is open and honest, then the other reasons become non-issues. Any project can recover without conflict if there is transparency and buy in. As a team, including the stakeholders, all obstacles can be overcome.