Friday, September 21, 2012

Troubled Projects

This article follows last Tuesday's PMTV debate on this topic just because there was much left to say. For such a juicy topic 30 minutes is just not enough... all the rest about this debate was great: the idea of Bernardo Tirado (from The Project Box) and Jon Hyde (from Public Sector PM) of setting up Project Management TV, the choice of Troubled Projects for the topic and the insights offered during the discussion by Todd Williams and Steve Carter. Oh, and me also!
But much wasn't said, so I figured the best way to turn this around was to write this article. Please watch the interview and continue reading this article if the topic is of interest to you.

What is a Troubled Project

All projects have problems: some delayed tasks, a stakeholder with a bad attitude, the difficulty of dealing with changing requirements or a supplier that doesn't deliver on the agreed schedule. Something like this always happens in any given project. These are regular projects, not troubled projects.
A troubled project is a project where things got to a point where the project is at risk of being cancelled. It can be that the entire budget of the project is already spent and you're still at the middle of the project, or the sponsor vanished and you can't move the project forward anymore, or the business need that originated the project no longer exists. In short, a troubled project is a project in really bad shape.

Where do problems come from?

Any project is about 3 things: people, business and stuff you have to deliver. And problems can come from any of these areas and many times come from more than one. This is important because you can have a troubled project for reasons that go beyond schedule, costs, scope and quality, a notion that was somehow shared some time back. It is still useful because some projects are in trouble because so schedule, cost, scope or quality problems but don't restrict yourself to just those: remember that projects are also about businesses and people.

How do you know when you have a Troubled Project?

There are 2 main factor at play that make spotting troubled projects so hard at an initial stage. For starters people involved in a project have a lot going on so it's difficult to simultaneously be focused on the project activity and aware of what's happening around the project. Thus the importance of having a dog to walk... but project managers are so used to having problems within projects that sometimes it's hard for them that they're facing something that they cannot solve. This alongside with a sense of contagious optimism (of the kind "we'll pull this through") makes it hard to see when it's over your head.
Steve Carter also mentioned in the debate that there seems that you can't spot the specific point in time where things went wrong. But someday you find out that this "challenging" project  is in an awful shape because of this and that. One more difficulty to add to the lot.
Experience can be determinant with this, to help a project manager know when his/her project is a troubled project. Just as an example, Sarokin (you'll find a reference to a book of his later on) gives as an example of a right light when a project has mentions to technology on the 1st paragraph of the project description.

How to ensure success

You weren't really expecting a one line answer to this, were you? But it's no surprise that having a competent project manager and a sponsor who knows about his role seems to make projects run smoother. It doesn't ensure success, but it does help. A good project manager and a good sponsor should provide the project with good leadership and fluid communication and these two were pointed on the debate both by Steve Carter and Todd Williams as crucial to ensure success. So you see how this is all connected.
But it can happen that finishing a project on time, on budget and on schedule doesn't bring any benefits. It can happen that the business need that originated the project is no longer there and so you're building something (on time, on budget and on schedule) that is of no use for anyone - you're being efficient but not effective. If you have a good sponsor, it's easier to get the project cancelled (and maybe reborn to address a new business need that arose because the first one is no longer there). And cancelling the project is a good idea in these cases! So remember not to save every troubled project, will you? You must always check if it's worthwhile first.

Bringing a Troubled Project back on track

This has a 3 part answer:

  1. There is no recipe for this
  2. Start a new project
  3. Use common sense and keep things simple

There is no recipe

Although there are some literature published on how to address troubled projects, and although I will point in 2 directions to address the "bringing troubled projects back on track" issue, I don't believe there is just one single answer. You need both the knowledge and the experience, and it seems to me that it's impossible to have someone that has gone through all the problems that can occur that cause a project to get into trouble...
In fact, I've written in "One way to lower the project overall risk is..." about this project manager that told me  he had a long tail project (that is, a project where at least one of the components will endure in time). And to overcome the problem he divided the original project into 2 sub-projects. Simple, no? But this is not the kind of thing you read about on Project Management books, so you have to rely on experience.

Start a new project

A troubled project always originates a new project to address the problems that put the original project into trouble. This is a must because if the project is in trouble you have to address the root-problem (or problems) probably changing the project significantly by a combination of the following:

  • Increase the schedule
  • Increase the scope
  • Increase the budget
  • Lower the quality
  • Reallocate resources (including replacing the project manager)
  • Divide the project
  • ....
These changes are significant enough to set up a new project and it always needs the organization to put in an extra effort. And the organization needs to be conscious about that, that an extra effort is needed to correct things and bring the project back to track.

Use common sense and keep things simple

It's all to easy when problems arise for people to become so focused that they loose sight of the obvious stuff around them. There's this story (I couldn't confirm if it's true or not) that was told to me ant that goes like this:
When the space race started both the United States and the Soviet Union shared this problem: to find a way to write without gravity. Both found a solution: the United States developed a pen that could write without gravity that had a huge cost associated with it's design and further production. The Soviet Union opted to take pencils into space.
In this particular case, both simplicity and common sense where used by the Soviet Union: if a pencil works, why spend more time and money? When things get tough you don't go for Monte Carlo simulations, instead you should use common sense and simplicity.


As I mentioned, you need both the knowledge and the experience to address troubled projects. This article (and the debate that gave origin to it) can be a start for you, but the topic has a lot more for you to learn. So I'll leave you 2 books and 2 articles here to follow up on the topic:

There's also a Community of Practice on the Project Management Institute that addresses this particular topic. Surprise, it's the Troubled Projects Community of Practice!
And good luck with your troubled project!

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