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Project Management

How to spot a failing project

Gretchen Gavett has written a great blog post for the Harvard Business Review about the “Hidden Indicators of a Failing Project”.  It’s a quick read, but I’ve summarised some of the main points here and added links to my own posts about project success and failure.

In my opinion, project success, or failure, is a “people thing” and mostly not about systems or methodologies. Gretchen’s blog refers to “watermelon projects”: nice on the outside and one big mess once you cut through the surface. She warns that nobody in a watermelon project is going to own up to “running a failing project”.  Cultural factors often make it too difficult to be open about what’s really going wrong [some of the points in my post about organisations in crisis are relevant here].

Conventional approaches to assessing project progress are also unlikely to flag up problems.  Measuring progress against cost and time are OK, but the frequency of reporting on most projects means these are lagging indicators and it’s often too late to take corrective action.  When you factor in people’s inability to estimate how long project activities will take, the problem is compounded. [read Hofstadter’s Law and project estimating]  Gretchen also points out that it’s all very well to be on time and budget, but you could still be failing to meet the required business outcomes of the project, i.e. not realising the expected benefits.  In previous posts I’ve written that “Most benefits aren’t” and how “Sloppy Benefits thinking” undermines project success.

So, the key points for project success in Gretchen’s blog are:

  • Check and revise your Business Case regularly
  • Pay attention to what really happens at meetings
  • Cast a wide knowledge net
  • Monitor what’s not being spent
  • Have an entrepreneurial Project Manager

Read Gretchen Gavett’s blog post: “Hidden Indicators of a Failing Project”.

Also read my post: “The current state of project management” and “Outputs vs. Outcomes in projects

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