When Projects Go Bad


    Most consulting work is project based.  Whether a consultant is in charge of a project or simply a member of the project team, he or she needs to know what to do when a project goes bad to help the client get back on track.  In this week’s podcast, we will discuss the various causes and effects of bad projects and how consultants can help a cStressed_Project_Managerlient deal with it.

    1. How do projects go bad?
      1. There are many ways a project can go bad.  One of the most common is letting the scope of the project get out of control
      2. Scope is the amount of work that you’ve decided will be completed in the project.  It never fails that someone wants to add a little something here and a little there.
      3. Before you know it, the amount of work needed to complete the project is bigger than the amount of work hours you have available to do it.
      4. Companies don’t like to move project dates out, so they end up either adding people or working the existing staff more hours.  And both of those can be problematic.
      5. Adding people requires time to train them to get them up to speed.  There are other overhead needs for each team member that adds to the project effort.
      6. Working the team extra hours ends up killing morale and risks making the team members so exhausted that they start making stupid mistakes.
      7. Another thing that causes a project to go bad is when the team just doesn’t mesh.  You’ve got several individuals doing work, but they’re not working as a team.
      8. If you’ve ever watched an NBA basketball game, they generally play as a team.  But if you’ve ever watched the NBA all star game, they’re a bunch of individual players shooting whenever they get the ball.  There’s no defense played and the final score is about twice as high as an average game score.
      9. When that happens on a project, the thing you notice most is the lack of communication.  When there are communication breakdowns, nobody knows that anyone else is doing.
      10. The result of that is a lot of redundant work where two people do the same task because they didn’t know the other was doing it.  Or, maybe even worse and more common, many tasks don’t get done because everyone assumed someone else would do it.
    2. What is the difference between a project going off track and a complete train wreck?
      1. A lot of it has to do with the management of the project.  A good project manager will make sure to control the scope of the project and make sure that any new functionality added to the project allows for more time in the project or appropriate staffing increases.
      2. The project manager is also responsible for making sure everyone is communicating and that everyone knows who is responsible for every task.
      3. If the project manager monitors these items closely, you can avoid the train wreck.  The project may get off track every once in a while as the issues ebb and flow, but the project manager will jump in when things go off track and pull the project back on track.
      4. It’s also a matter of opinion.  I’ve seen some projects go off-track and an executive thinks it’s a complete mess.
      5. The thing about projects is they never go perfectly well all the time.  As a project manager I’ve gone through some very boring phases of projects while things are going quite well.  But that can cause a false sense of security.
      6. Before you know it, it can get will out of control if you’re not on top of things. You have to constantly monitor the status of the project, without getting in everyone’s way checking status.
    3. What do you do as a consultant in charge of the project?
      1. I’m a consulting project manager.  So my assignment at the client is generally to be the consultant in charge of the project.
      2. So I’m generally the one that has to monitor the status and determine if the project is going off track.
      3. Although we don’t follow a true Agile approach, we follow many agile principles.  And one of those principles is to have a daily stand-up meeting every morning.
      4. We start the day with the whole team spending 15 minutes giving an update that consists of three components:

    i.      What they accomplished yesterday

    ii.      What they plan to accomplish today

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    iii.      List anything that is blocking them from making progress.

      1. This allows the whole team to know exactly what everyone is doing and gives everyone a forum to announce what is blocking them.  It’s my job to facilitate removing that obstacle.  I may not be able to remove it, but I need to find the person who can.
      2. The daily stand up is a great way to get the team communicating on a regular basis.
      3. I also report status to the client executives, usually on a weekly basis.  In this status meeting, among other things, I report the project in green-yellow-red status.
      4. If everything is going well, the status color is green. If for some reason we’re a little off track, tasks are running behind schedule or there are some big risks hovering over us, I report it as yellow.  This is just a heads-up for the executive that we’re monitoring things closely and there are some situations that could cause the project to fall behind.
      5. If we’ve fallen far behind on many tasks so that the entire project risks being delivered late, I report the status as red.
      6. This lets the executives know that the project is in trouble and we may need them to intervene to help us get it back on track.
    1. What if you’re just a team member and the project is going bad?
      1. It really depends on your role on the project.  The most important thing you can do is get your tasks done on time and ensure that you are communicating.  You have to make sure you do your job.
      2. If you’re not the project manager, you may not be able to influence other things very well.  If there is a very weak project manager, you may be able to coach them and help them get the communication going and help them monitor for risk and issues on the project.
      3. That’s all predicated on the project manager being open to being coached.  The only thing worse than a weak project manager is one who doesn’t know he’s weak.
      4. If they’re open to coaching, you can make suggestions within reason to help them in those areas.
      5. If you’re constantly giving advice and correcting their actions, they’ll begin to take offense to it and may end up seeing it as interfering rather than helping.  It can be a delicate balance.
      6. But also, depending on your role, you can do things that increase the communication.  You can copy people on emails or maybe forward them to people who need to know what’s going on.
      7. Even if you have a strong project manager, they aren’t going to catch everything that happens.  You can help by being another set of eyes and ears for the project manager so that they can be made aware of things they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of.
      8. It can be a delicate balance.  You want to do your best to help the project out, but you want to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes and giving the impression that you’re trying to take over.  If you aren’t careful, they could end up pointing their fingers at you for interfering too much in their management of the project.
    2. How does a project that’s gone badly reflect on the consultant?
      1. Again, it depends on your role on the project.  If you’re the project manager, it will reflect heavily on you.  As project manager, you’re charged with keeping the project on track.  And in the inevitable moment when the project goes off-track, you’re expected to communicate that it is, why it is, and how you suggest getting it back on track.
      2. That’s why I like the green-yellow-red indications.  It allows me to report the project in yellow and a heads-up before announcing a red status.
      3. But it also depends on what caused the project to go bad.
      4. Sometimes it can be because of one person that’s causing a problem.  This could be a client employee or one of the consultants.
      5. And it can be for any number of reasons. Maybe someone is consistently late getting their work done which brings down the whole team.
      6. Sometimes it’s just a personality clash.  I’ve been on projects where one team member just can’t get along with a couple of people on the team preventing any chemistry to gel for the entire team.
      7. If it’s one of our own consultants, we can do some coaching and work with the individual. If it’s a client employee, it’s a little harder.  If the client is already aware that this person is a problem, they may have assigned them to us so that he’d be our problem.  But it can be a sensitive issue if it’s one of their people causing the problem.
      8. If coaching won’t work, sometimes the project is better off just taking that person off of the project.   On one hand, it’s a good thing.  Sometimes you just need to do some addition by subtraction if the person is that distracting for the project team.
      9. But it can cause some hard feelings.  If you have a good consultant that just doesn’t fit in, you may think they just need a change of scenery so you just pull them off the project and put them on another one.
      10. But they may take it personally and feel that you didn’t support them enough.  In that case, you’ve damaged their morale and you risk losing them as an employee.
      11. But the bottom line is that you need to find out the root cause of the issues causing the project to go south and have some solutions in hand.
      12. Otherwise, you and your firm may be held accountable.
    3. Have you ever seen consultants be the scapegoats for projects that go bad?
      1. I’ve seen that many times.  Any time there is a big project with consultants, you’re going to have nervous client executives.  They’ve got this big budget allocation that they’re responsible for, and if things go wrong, it could severely limit their career advancement.
      2. So they know in the back of their minds that they can hold the consultants responsible if things go too bad.  They may still have to face some music since they are responsible, but booting out the consulting firm tends to offset some of that blame.
    4. Any final thoughts on projects gone bad?
      1. We’ve talked about how any project that goes bad can affect the consultant.  They can be held responsible as a scapegoat or because they’re actually responsible.
      2. Whether you are the project manager responsible for the entire project or just a team member that’s accountable for a few tasks in the project plan, it’s imperative that you complete all tasks that you’re responsible for on time and that you communicate your appropriate status to everyone that needs to know.
      3. And when you communicate, there’s a fair amount of CYA (cover your ass) involved.  You want to let as many people as possible know your status.  And you want to document it, usually in an email that has a time and date stamp so that if anyone claims they didn’t know, you’ve got documented evidence of your update.
      4. But to really insure client satisfaction, you want to focus more on solutions.  When a project goes bad, you always run the risk of blame.
      5. If you focus on how to turn things around, the client doesn’t remember who was to blame as much as they remember who helped fix it and avoid a major failure.

    Next week’s topic:

    When a consultant doesn’t fit.

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