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6 Signs Your Project is Headed "South"

Monitoring and controlling a large complex project so that it delivers the benefits envisioned in the Project Charter for the allotted budget and on schedule is a very demanding and complex task. It requires the project manager to be conversant with all the day to day details of the project and know the status of each of the deliverables at any given time. Despite this requirement to keep tabs on the details of the project, there are some tell-tale signs that a project is headed for disaster that the project manager should keep an eye out for.

  1. The SPI is less than one and trending lower. The SPI (Schedule Performance Index) is the indicator used to determine how the project is performing to schedule overall. This indicator averages the performance of all project activities without regard for Critical Path activities. You will be made aware of any failure to produce a key deliverable on time by your stakeholders, but failure to complete non-critical path activities on schedule can also lead to major project problems when the slack for these activities is used up. Keep your eye on those Critical Path activities to guard against slippage by all means, but also use the SPI as a general health indicator for your project.
  2. The CPI is less than one and trending lower. The CPI (Cost Performance Indicator) is similar to the SPI in that it is used to indicate the overall performance of the project; in this case spending performance is measured rather than schedule performance. Poor performance to budget may be a more pernicious problem than poor performance to schedule. Checks on the budget may be performed with less frequency and there are no spot checks similar to a failure to produce a key deliverable on time. Maintaining a good SPI by authorizing overtime or acquiring additional resources will lead to budget overruns and the CPI is the key indicator of trouble in this area.
  3. A key software deliverable is being reported as "on schedule" but there is no evidence of any code (or the evidence doesn't match the reported progress). No-one likes to disappoint and software developers may exaggerate or over-state their progress to avoid disappointing you. They will do this fully intending to get their work back on track but will slip further and further behind as time goes by. MS Project uses the percentage of work completed as the status indicator for activities, however the amount of work required to build the software is often a guess so it is no surprise that the estimate of percentage completion would be an even wilder guess. One way to receive an early warning of work gone off track is to break the software down into smaller pieces, say modules or functions. You'll find this breakdown process serves 2 purposes: it sharpens the estimate of the work required and increases the accuracy of the progress report. Now, instead of reporting on percentage of work done, report on modules or functions completed and report on that as a percentage of the entire package.
  4. Development work on your software development project is on schedule but the QA group is producing a large number of bug reports, or the bugs being reported are "show stoppers". Show stoppers are those bugs which prevent further testing. An excessive number of bug reports or "show stoppers" indicates excessive re-work and it is very likely that you have not budgeted for it. Always allow for rework in your project schedule. The way the time is set aside and the amount of time will depend on the SDLC chosen for your project and the complexity of the software. An iterative approach will give you an early warning that you are about to be swamped with rework. A waterfall approach leaves all the rework to the end of the schedule. Avoid late surprises by choosing the right approach for your project, or by mixing methodologies, say producing a pilot or first iteration to prove the quality of your software. An excessive amount of bug reports will alarm stakeholders with concerns about the quality of the application but the project manager should also be concerned with the affect on the schedule and budget.
  5. Trouble getting participation from stakeholders on requirements. Participation could be in the form of contributing to requirements definition, or signing off on the requirements which have been gathered. This is an early warning sign that your project is off the rails. The failure to engage in the definition phase of your project could lead to stakeholders refusing to accept a system which they didn't approve or contribute to. Failure to sign off is a different manifestation of the same problem. Failure to get sign off will result in a schedule slippage during the definition phase (where sign off ends the phase) or at the end of the project where sign off is not forthcoming. Try alerting your sponsor to the problem pointing out it's severity and potential affect on the project goals and objectives with a view to engaging them to bring about engagement or sign off.
  6. Your risk register indicates excessive unmitigated or residual risk. I refer to risks that exceed the tolerance threshold for the project which have not had a mitigation strategy or contingency plan implemented as yet. Residual risk is that portion of the risk which remains after a strategy has been implemented. Excessive risk usually indicates that one or more risk events will happen and the project will be derailed by them. Even though it is usually the risk event we were blissfully unaware of that bites us in the behind, do not ignore an excess of known risk. Look at moving the schedule for implementing mitigation strategies forward, or to new and better ways of mitigation when there is excessive residual risks. You may even have to increase the budget to cover the cost of better mitigation strategies.

These 6 signs do not constitute a complete menu of indicators that something is wrong with your project, they merely represent the more common ailments. Do not hesitate to take corrective action if you should spot any of these signs on your project. You will find that ignoring these signs will ultimately lead to the derailment of your project.