Saturday, 19 January 2008

Failing projects: 1 - identification

So how do you spot a failing project?

Although this question is framed as if it were about the project, it is really about the project team. Some projects will fail because they are too big, too complex, or too under-resourced to achieve their aims despite the best efforts of a fully functioning team. Here the issue is rather: how do you spot when a project threatens to fail even though it should succeed?

Teams are astonishing flexible and powerful. Humans are by nature social animals; if you put people in a room and give them a task they will become a team. As Big Brother has shown, this may not be a pleasant or wholly positive process: the missing element in the House is leadership. Most failing teams reflect a failure of leadership. There are a lot of warning signs indicating that such failure is imminent.

Site visit to a failing project

  • Workers will be focused on specific tasks or areas, reluctant to share equipment or lend staff

What this reflects is a lack of belief in the project as a whole. It isn't necessarily a conscious effort to avoid blame.

  • Untidy tool store, site and cabins

People feel too busy or too tired to do anything that isn't their direct responsibility: it's easier just to leave the rubbish on the chair or put the tools away dirty.

  • Minor accidents, incorrect or incomplete records

People who feel under pressure won't have their usual air of calm competence.

  • Minor sickness, lateness and slowness

One of the prime motivators is feeling that you can't let your team down by not playing your part: so these symptoms reflect that the central identity of the team is weak.

  • Poor morale and working relationships

Arguments are to be expected when people work together, but in normal circumstances they would be brief and soon forgotten. One common phenomenon is the developemnt of a strong site v office antipathy where senior managers are seen as the enemy.

It will be apparent that 10 minutes of wandering around the site and talking to a couple of the team will probably be enough to assess these warning signs. It should perhaps be emphasised that although it is often said that conditions like the weather or the nature of the work are responsible for poor morale, this isn't true: an enthused team will cope with an adverse situation positively.

Talking to the team leader (Project Officer/ Project Manager)

The team leader will be aiming to deliver a successful project completed on time. They will normally do their best to avoid admitting to uncertainty. Phrases such as "I'm not sure ...", "I don't know ... "and "I can't decide ... " should be taken as red flags that they have reached the point where they are no longer able to take effective decisions. This is usually because they feel swamped by the work to be done and therefore cannot plan ahead. Another warning phrase is the reponse, when asked for the likely completion date for a task, is "As long as it takes"or "I can't tell". This is not because people should be able to predict the future accurately, but rather because it's telling you they haven't even got a plan for how it might work out.

When people get to this state they cannot prioritise effectively, but more importantly they cannot direct the team, who will sense whether their leader has a grasp on the project.

Action is needed ... but what? See part 2.

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