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How to tell if a project is in trouble: Part I the structured way

When it comes to analyzing the health of a project, there is a structured way, and a quick casual way.  You always want to go with a structured approach.  However, that is not always possible.  Then you have to go with a casual quick way to get you the indications you need about the health of the project.

This part will address a structured approach.  I am planning to do a “part 2” later to address the “quick and dirty” method.

If you are going with the structured approach, here are a few tips to help you determine how well a project is progressing.

The first thing to do is to understand the intent from the project.  If the intent is not clear, then the project is already in trouble.  Intent is different from objective.  Intent is strategic, and talks about why the project is undertaken in the first place.  Objective is more about the final deliverables expected from the project, which tells you about the resulting “product” but not why it was developed.

Look at the original project documents: the request for proposal (RFP), proposal, and contract.  Try to understand the project objectives, scope, approach, key stakeholders, and assumptions.

Then move your attention to the project baseline: which is the agreed upon project plan between the key stakeholders including contractors, customers, suppliers, etc. If a project baseline does not exist, and everybody is relying on what is in the contract, the project is already in trouble.

Your next move is to look at the latest progress reports, risk and issues logs, and a comparison between the original baseline, current baseline (which is the original plus approved changes), and current plan.  Make sure you check the latest update to any of the documents.  Anything over a month since last update most probably is an indication of an obsolete document.  If any of the above is not there, or progress documents and plans are obsolete, then the project is most probably in trouble already.  Also, ask about which “phases” have been completed, then ask about the completed phases, what is the work that must be done before they are declared complete, and whether that work has been done actually.  You will be amazed at how much work is missing on things people consider “complete.”

You should not rely on progress reports alone.  You should assess the situation first hand.  Use the words “show me” a lot when requesting evidence of work accomplished.  Go meet with people working on the project, and see if you get consistent answers from them to seemingly innocent questions like “How is the project coming along?”  If people are not too talkative, shy away from discussion, or give you generic answers, then either their project is top-secret or the project is probably in trouble.  Make sure your tour includes visits to client and suppliers, and other key stakeholders, not just the performing organization.

Finally, if everything seems to be in perfect order on the project; the plans are up to date, everything is on schedule and on budget.  There are no complaints from customer.  There are no issues.  Then most probably the project is in trouble.  

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