Burns wrote, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry," and while he was addressing a mouse in his poem, his words sum up the day-to-day struggles of project managers. The key to successful project management is being able to not only to balance the "triple constraints" of time, resources and quality, but to identify red flags that could signal an impending project disaster.
"The most important thing to remember is that regardless of how well you plan, how much you build in contingencies for all the expected ways things could go sideways, something else, something you didn't expect, will always happen. Something is always going to go wrong. If you can acknowledge and accept that, and then understand that sometimes these things aren't in your control, you're in a better position."
Red flag: focus on output rather than outcome
There are signs and signals, though, that can indicate when a project's in trouble. One of the easiest to see is a focus on output rather than outcome. Project managers must first determine what the desired outcome of a project is, and what value that project will bring to the business, and then make sure that all the steps along the way -- the output -- are contributing to that larger goal the organization wants to accomplish.
"PMs are supposed to look at output: project completion schedules, budgets, resources, but if you're completely focused on those, you'll miss the bigger picture of how your project fits into the larger business strategy. It's like if you're taking a road trip and, at the end you say, 'Great! We only had one gas stop and one food stop, and we made fantastic time'."
Red flag: Focus on cost instead of value
Project managers bear the burden of proving to the larger business and the C-suite that they're not just a cost center, but provide value to the organization. An undue focus on project management as a major cost center is another red flag, and one that shouldn't be taken lightly.
"You have to focus on showing your business leadership that the costs you're incurring are directly in alignment with and furthering the business' goals." Let's for example, say you're a project manager tasked with helping the company expand internationally and open an office in Brazil, then you have to first think of everything that entails: renting or purchasing office space; purchasing and deploying infrastructure, setting up internet connections, hiring talent and making connections with customers. Then, you need to draw direct correlations between what you're spending and how that aligns with the business' goals of succeeding in a new, international market.
"In this example, if your project goes over budget on infrastructure, you have to be able to argue that, say, shipping and deployment costs are higher in Brazil, or that you're purchasing higher quality networking equipment so that you're directly in line with the organization's strategy." Proving that project management isn't just a cost center but a critical, strategic value-add is incredibly important.
Red flag: Focus on process instead of people
Resource management is a key focus for project managers. Figuring out how to best allocate limited supplies of time, money and people can be the difference between project success or failure. But organizations that focus solely on the process and procedure instead of how effectively resources are being used is a major red flag.
"Why do so many projects fail? Because they don't have the right resources in place at the right time. Without the correct allocation of your people, you don't have a project at all. That goes back to making sure you're highlighting the value you bring to the organization, so you can say, 'Look, I know you're trying to take Karol and move him to another project, but without Karol, X, Y and Z won't happen on this, so I either need more money to hire someone else, or another person, or more time to get this done.'"
This type of focus on the process and execution instead of on the people involved can often be traced to a deeper problem. They don't trust what their people are telling them.
"Projects are made of people and processes, and people can throw your processes off, but your processes also can screw up your people. Do you have the best people working for you? Then, no matter what the process says, you have to trust the people when they come to you with potential problems."
Red flag: Lack of clear communication
Clear and constant communication shouldn't just happen when projects are going well. That's expected. Where project managers can really add value to an organization is when they can identify red flags and point them out to leadership before they become failures.
"You have to know how to highlight potential risks, how to communicate possible solutions, and when to bring in stakeholders to help you. If you don't feel you can do this without fear of being blamed, without repercussions, that's a red flag in and of itself.". Most leaders understand the pressure project managers are under, and want to help remove obstacles for PMs who are working on projects for them.
"Make sure you can communicate clearly about the resources and the needs of the project, and that you know when to do so. You don't want to wait until the project is in dire straits before you sound the alarm."
Make sure you've got a solid plan and a baseline for monitoring and measuring progress so you can diligently track how the project is going, and head off any potential problems.
"I'm an advocate of having a baseline in place and actively monitoring and managing against that baseline weekly. If I'm one month into the project and my dates are slipping by 3 days, I want to know if that's that a trend, or a one-time thing? Where will I be at six weeks, or eight? And where are the issues coming up -- on scope? On hitting critical dates? On budget?"
Red flag: Single points of failure
Be wary of any project that includes a single point of failure, because it's almost a given that something will go wrong, and without a backup plan the entire project is at risk.
"This comes down to a risk management problem. Sometimes, you have to assess the amount of risk and take the chance, and sometimes the risk is huge but you take the steps to mitigate it, like having a backup, or by instituting SLAs or by buying insurance. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the project can fail."
Red flag: Not using frameworks
Whether your project is in construction or deploying a new solution, projects tend to unfold similarly and all are subject to the same constraints: time, resources and quality. That's why project management frameworks - are helpful to identify weaknesses or possible points of failure and to mitigate those.
"Bad things can happen when you aren't using these processes and frameworks. That doesn't mean you always have to plan and execute a project in the exact way a framework suggests; you can customize the frameworks to match up with your time, resources and the expected quality, but the closer you get to the framework, the less risk you'll have overall and the greater the chance of success."