Troubled Projects

13 July, 2015

During the Irish civil war, one of the protagonists stated that “failing to plan is planning to fail” and stormed off the training pitch in Saipan. While not renowned for his project management skills, Roy Keane certainly would recognize at least one reason why projects get into trouble.

The PM Solutions research group list five main reasons for projects running into difficulty and poor planning is ranked at number four. Unsurprisingly, poor quality requirements hold the top spot. As Tom Gilb put it in his “Fuzzy Targets” principle, “Projects without clear goals will not achieve their goals clearly”. Anyone who has studied for a project management certification, such as the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP)®, will remember being told to ensure that all requirements are “measureable and testable”. Yet how many of us have managed projects where the end product has “user-friendly” interfaces and “pleasant” surroundings?

The PM Solutions report defines poor requirements as being “unclear  … contradictory, ambiguous, imprecise”. They also warn against a “lack of agreement, lack of priority”. This is all due to a requirement representing one stakeholder’s vision of what the product should look like. However, the vision the requirement puts into other people’s heads can be totally different. Unless you have a clear and agreed picture of what the project is to achieve, you will never get there.

The second problem that leads to troubled projects is a lack of resources. Although the PM Solutions report does not mention it, a serious problem for Project Managers is not so much the lack of resources as the quality of them. Often, schedules are arrived at assuming experienced, competent team members. Then the Project Manager is given a team of raw recruits and much of the early weeks and months are taken up getting these people up to speed, as well as gelling as a team.

Third on the list are schedules. Again, any practicing PMPs® out there will be familiar with the great expectations of senior management. Going through the recognized scheduling and estimation processes and presenting the Project Sponsor with detailed and well-argued duration estimates will often result in being told to do the same work in a shorter timeframe.

An effective way to get out of this dilemma is to use three-point estimating. Present the optimistic estimates by clearly stating that there is no padding here and no margin for error. Present the worst case scenarios, highlighting the risks that could add time or cost to the project. Then open the discussion to determining what the most likely estimate should be. If your managers still insist on getting this completed in less than the optimistic estimate then you are in trouble.

You could resign on the spot, but that would be an over-reaction. Senior managers are used to horse-trading. They often mistake genuine estimates for opening bids, giving the Project Managers a tendency to put in padding in order to cover themselves when the inevitable abbreviation is demanded. Your best option is this case is to ask the management team to point out where the schedule can be compressed. Admit that you cannot see how this can be done and ask for assistance. It the managers respond, they should quickly realize that you have not been making this up. If they are realistic they should realize their mistake and revise their expectations. If they are not, you should start planning your own future outside the organization – this place is not going to last long.

The final cause of troubled projects is risk. It is frightening the number of projects out there where risks are not even considered. The risk identification process should start during the development of the Charter, as part of determining the project’s feasibility. Risk analysis should inform our choice of solution and it certainly should have a part to play in making the go/no-go decision.

It is not surprising that projects get into trouble. But what is encouraging is the way professional project management practices enable us steer a safe course through the project. Everything the PMP® Solutions’ report lists – requirements, resources, schedules, planning and risks – are all covered by the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge’s (PMBOK® Guide’s) planning process group.

Learn more about these processes by taking any one of our 1-day, 2-day, 3-day or 4-day project management courses. Our 4-day PMP® exam preparation courses are held in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway regularly. Please visit our course list or contact us directly for more information.

 

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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