5 project red lights to look out for

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5 project red lights to look out for

Sometimes project issues can sneak up on you and you don't realize that bad things may be happening on your project. Watch for these five signs and investigate quickly if you see them occurring.

Sometimes we can be smoothly managing one or more projects – at least smoothly in our mind – while red lights are flashing around us and we are not even aware. Customer concerns and project problems don't necessarily manifest themselves in very obvious manners, we have to look for signs.

What I've accumulated here are five potential project red lights to be aware of and check into if you happen to see them begin to occur on any of your projects. They may be nothing, or they may be a sign of real problems coming or already occurring.

1. Unpaid invoices.

One sign there may be some concerns or customer satisfaction issues on your project is unpaid invoices. While these may just be oversights or slow processing on the client's side, it could also be a sign they are withholding payment because they are have some delivery or quality concerns.

As soon as you are aware of some unpaid invoices, confidently and proactively reach out to your project sponsor about them. Do not attack – just inform him of the unpaid invoices and ask if there is any reason. Likely there isn't, but this will certainly get the discussion started.

2. Project budget over by more than 10 percent.

The project manager who does not stay on top of the project budget is in for a big surprise down the road. I've never known a project to stay on budget unless some significant effort and oversight is put into it. I always say that a project budget that is 10 percent over is much easier to fix than one that is over by 50 percent and going out of control. Once you've reached that status, it's probably too late. But if you stay aware and review and revise the project budget with project actuals every week you are far less likely to lose control of the budget.

Going over budget is one of the key failure points in project management – don't let it happen to you. Bottom line, 10 percent is likely correctible. More than 10 percent is definitely a red light that needs immediate attention or it will keep going the wrong way fast. Find out what is making it go that direction today.

3. Missed deadlines on consecutive project deliverables.

Most projects miss a deadline here and there. But if a project is missing repeated deadlines for key deliverables it is a sign that either the project schedule is not reasonable, that the team is performing poorly, or that one or more team members are not available enough to the project. It's either staffing, performance or quality.

The team that misses lots of deadlines is going to have a very difficult time maintaining customer satisfaction levels and that means a strong likelihood for a perceived failed project. The project manager must work quickly to identify why the deadlines are being missed and take action – personnel, schedule reset or otherwise.

4. Customer unavailable for multiple status meetings.

Are you having trouble keeping your project sponsor engaged on the project? On some busy projects that may seem like a dream come true, but it really isn't. You need your customer available to you for information and decision making. You need the customer available for weekly status calls and scope discussions or requirements clarifications.

It happens often on large complex projects and if you don't have an engaged client, then the project timeline – or worse, a key decision – may suffer. My trick for disengaged customers is to begin assigning them to tasks – even making them up if necessary – to report on every project status call so that they must remain available and engaged and accountable to those assigned tasks.

5. The CEO starts asking questions about the project.

If you reach this point and didn't know there was an issue then you may really be in denial or have your head buried in the sand. Unless your project is paying his salary, the CEO usually only makes house calls if the project customer is calling him to complain.