How to Avoid Project FailureHow can you recognize that your project is headed for disaster? Look for these warning signs.

Not every project we work on is our crowning achievement. Only a few projects make us rush to our LinkedIn profiles to record how much wonderfulness we accomplished in how little time, with a budget this tiny.

Into every project manager’s life a few clunkers must fall. Some failures are preventable; others are out of our hands. But all of us like to imagine we can avoid the worst of the catastrophes… or at least escape with our reputations intact.

How can you tell that your project is aimed directly at #headdesk territory? Take heed of these warning signs. If you identify the uh-oh moments soon enough, perhaps you can take remedial action and save the situation. Maybe you can walk away, take a deep breath, reanalyze the requirements, and reset the team. We’d like to think so!

The “vision guy” leaves.

You probably don’t need to be told that every project needs a champion, ideally from (or with support from) top management. After all, the “vision person” groks the goals, the payoffs, and the steps the team has on its journey to success. If she isn’t the company executive personally, she’s built relationships with the right people, and can explain project milestones, metrics, and problems in terms that the boss and stakeholders understand.

Thus we all worry when that person leaves. Okay, maybe not so much if the departure is a promotion in the same company, especially if it’s a reward based on what this project achieved; you still can still call upon her in an emergency. But if the Vision Person leaves the company for another job, you can safely assume that she saw insurmountable problems (such as the executive’s buy-in disappearing, or politics taking over), in which her best solution was “Get out of town.” If she is reassigned to the branch office in Reykjavik, expect pink slips to be imminent for the rest of the team.

Sometimes a project survives the exit of the Vision Guy, especially if the leader did a good job of mentoring someone else into the position. So this doesn’t mean doom is sure to follow. It just means you are justified in feeling nervous, particularly if Vision Guy did not leave of his own volition.

Remember: A new broom often wants to sweep clean, and that means making changes just to prove that something new is being done. Even when it’s a bad idea. All too often, the new-broom-sweeping leaves nails in the floor.

There’s no Vision Guy in the first place.

If the project is important enough, it’s likely that somebody is responsible for its completion – and rewarded for its success. If not… worry. I’ve seen problems arise when nobody cares enough to have or control that vision, a situation that often arises after the Vision Guy leaves. Because when a project’s success has no bearing on a team member’s life, he won’t be motivated to fix problems – or even pay attention.

The scary moment for you: This project is a key part of what you do for a living. But for the people upon whom you rely – someone in another department, a client who has to approve the materials list, the accounting people who must sign off on the budget – it really doesn’t matter. So if any project has to be crossed off the list… which one do you think is first on the chopping block?

The evidence shows up in several ways: People stop showing up for meetings, or meetings are cancelled more often than they’re held. Decisions are postponed more than three times, even when they impact a delivery schedule.

Another way to see the signs of imminent doom is through the nature of the communication used. Key people stop answering e-mail no matter how many URGENT tags you attach. More and more people are added to the distribution list, with everyone apparently assuming that someone else will answer the message (and take the fall if the answer is wrong). Or it becomes an e-mail forwarding party, in which you suspect the manager could be replaced by an e-mail redirection batch file.

Everybody is “the Vision Guy.”

Another political landmine is the flip side of nobody being in charge: Everyone thinks he is in charge. To demonstrate the need to be “part of” this important, career-defining project, every single stakeholder sees himself as a dog that needs to mark his territory by peeing on it.

Here too you see the effects in several ways. When the review team keeps growing and changing, asking you to make changes that you addressed five versions ago (before they were on the team). Progress is measured by the number of fixed bugs and not completed features. Team members have fights over product specs, leaving the implementers at a loss to know what should be done (so should it be green or purple? Someone make a decision!).

My own solution to these problems: Pick someone, anyone, to be The Contact. It almost doesn’t matter whom you pick; you might as well choose someone you like personally. Easiest way to do this in a public meeting? When a question is to be resolved, turn and look at The Chosen One as though she is naturally the one to make the final decision. Everybody else always follows along. (I learned this technique from Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which gives you an excuse to read more science fiction and call it project management training.)

Then I try to ensure that by supporting my project, that person benefits. Work hard to give that person something to brag about to superiors. It’s become an unspoken goal for me, in working with my clients and bosses, to do everything in my power for my contact to get a big raise because of what I helped the client to achieve.

The project’s goals become less important than corporate politics.

We like to think that we’re doing a project because it helps the customer or user, or at least it profits the business. But – oh wait, you’re already laughing at that premise?

There are so many ways that politics subvert project goals. My personal torture: The jockeying for position wherein people “protect” the decision makers. That is, it’s fine if the big boss says, “This upsets me” or “I don’t think this plan will work.” You can at least counter those objections, even if you don’t successfully convince her to adopt your solution.

It’s worse, though, when the “team” becomes a collection of protective layers between those doing the work (or proposing it) and the big boss. “I’m sure I know what the client wants” is among the most frightening thing you can hear, because the “protection” usually means, “We will play it safe.”

Then the local politics can make you, a consultant, the catspaw for all the brush warfare going on upstairs.

Nobody knows what success looks like.

You know your project is doomed when your own senior management can’t accurately describe it.

This doesn’t have to mean that every project requires a detailed project plan. Certainly it helps to have one – at least as an indication that somebody, sometime, knew where it was headed. But if you’re in a situation wherein you realize that every stakeholder has a different measure for success, and these conflict in some way (e.g. cheap, fast, good), you have good reason to be nervous.

Conflicts are inevitable, and sometimes they are healthy. But if you have no agreed-upon requirements or system specification, you have a problem.

More warning signs:

  • Users have had little (or no) early involvement. Worse: The stakeholders – who are the people who are supposed to benefit from the project – want nothing to do with it, and invest no resources into making it happen.
  • The project targets the minimum specs, or everything is done for “the least we can get away with.” What have you ever been proud of that was minimal?
  • When Sales makes commitments for when something will be ready, or what it will do, without consulting with the people who’d be doing the work.
  • When you discover critical missing pieces. Such as the experience of one friend who inherited a nearly completed Web redesign project only to find no graphic designer was consulted.

Expert input is ignored because of… well, because of anything.

Nothing good comes of a situation wherein expert recommendations are rebuffed without testing the outcomes. For some unfathomable reason, some people ask for expert advice and listen, then choose a different path – every time. Then they complain when something doesn’t work right.

My friend Al wrote a long analysis pointing out the problems with a project, and had a long conversation with his client explaining how many issues were deal-killers. The client said, “Oh, we just need to tweak this one little thing and it’ll all work.” The project lasted another three months (during which Al said, “Well, I’ll take their money…”) before the client “discovered” all the problems for himself.

An early danger sign: Someone outside the project says, “Oh, that’ll be easy” without any knowledge of what it takes to pull that off.

Anything risky is rejected out of hand.

Few of us want to brag about the projects we were involved on that did the same old thing, even if it was completed on time, on budget, and with most of what the users hoped for. We much prefer to work on projects that bring some measure of innovation to a process; otherwise why change anything at all?

Yet, plenty of businesses – and supposed stakeholders – are so afraid of change that they reject anything they see as a risk. You can’t have creativity without change, though, and on too many occasions I’ve seen executives try to “soften” innovation by removing the important bits, piece by piece.

For example, several years ago I listened to a keynote address from Joel Cohen, a writer and associate producer of The Simpsons TV show, and took several notes about innovation and the natural instinct to test things—to the detriment of the creative spark. “Hollywood tests about 80 pilots every year, Cohen said, most of which are ‘edgy.’ But then, they overtest the pilot episodes, trying to keep from offending anyone or taking too many risks, and ‘cutting the edges off’ in the process. The result? Boring TV shows, he said.”

It’s important for companies and project managers to consider risk and how to respond to it. That’s why those people are in charge. But the more people who are involved in a project, the more they each want to cut off those edges (or pee on them), so the result is boring… if it’s ever completed at all.

One way to address this – in a small way – is suggested by Nolan Bushnell in his new book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Hire, Keep and Nurture Creative Talent. Make it harder to say No to new ideas by making people responsible for their criticism, he suggests. Those with the most authority in a go/no-go decision “tend to be the ones who can analyze it least intelligently.” One way, he says, is to set a rule that objections must be written down. For one thing, it forces the critic to be specific: “If the worst part of an idea is its cost, writing down actual numbers forces people to be more precise,” Bushnell says, and it lets the idea’s creator rebut or investigate the options.

I’m sure these aren’t the only warning signs. In the comments, tell me about a moment you realized: This project is doomed. What had happened? Perhaps we can help someone else identify and fix a problem before it’s too late.