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Early Warning Signs – Keys to Averting Project Disaster

There is a time in the life of every problem when it is big enough to see, yet small enough to solve” – a quote from Michael O. Leavitt and one of my favorites when it comes to project management. I love it because it is true in almost every situation where you find yourself digging out from under a seemingly insurmountable problem. As a project manager, your #1 priority is to deliver on the expectations of your customer. A key to delivering is to solve problems before they become negatively impactful to your project. In this article, I’m going to share some of my early warning signs that tend to trigger my spidey-sense and have me digging for more until either the problem is rooted out or solved, or that the smoke really has no fire.

“It’s just the learning curve, the next one will be faster”

When using a team that doesn’t have familiarity with the technical environment, business requirements or tools being used for the project, there will always be a learning curve where productivity is not optimal. We often chalk this up to the fact that our team is learning as they go, which often is the case however this can often mask other deficiencies such as poor requirements documentation, insufficient skill sets or training needs.

No measurable tasks

This is a non-starter for many project managers. Without tangible metrics to measure to, there is no quantifiable way to justify your project’s progress. As project managers, we are often judged on two key factors – on budget and on schedule. At the very least, these two metrics should be rolled down to some level of task management where your team both has input on but is also held accountable to. If we as project managers cannot measure in a consistent fashion the progress of our team members, any progress we report will be a best guess.

Reliance on factors outside of your control

Often times your project will have outside dependencies – items you cannot control but have a direct impact on your project. While we often cannot influence these factors, we can build in mitigation strategies to our projects to account for the “what-if’s” for these factors. This goes back to basic risk identification and management strategies however if the number of factors that are outside of your control is abnormally high, it might be a good plan to address this with sponsorship and ensure that your project has a tolerable risk profile.

No roadblocks or issues ever reported by your team

This might seem strange since no roadblocks is typically good news. Not always. It may be a symptom of your team members not recognizing a block or worse yet, trying to power through it alone. It’s important to emphasize to your team that they are just that – a team. Nobody should suffer in silence and even if the block they are facing is manageable on their own, that it’s good practice to bring it up and socialize it, if nothing else then for knowledge sharing. If you as a project manager are finding that nobody seems to ever have an issue, it’s probably a good idea to go digging to see if that’s really the case or if there is something they just aren’t wanting to bring up.

Part of being a good project manager is being able to recognize small issues and address them before they become big problems that are much more difficult to solve. While there is no manual or playbook for being able to identify these problems, there are common warning signs that we can use to help us root out these problems and solve them before they become something that we can’t solve.

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