Signs your Project is Failing

One of the traits of the best project managers is a seemingly innate ability to spot the signs of a troubled project. Sometimes the signs are obvious, but at that point it’s often too late to save a project without a major intervention. Here are some tricks to use to spot trouble early:

Check your work

One of the best tests of a project’s true status is performing a demonstration of the end product. Some of the most nefarious failed projects looked perfectly fine from a management perspective: deliverables were getting delivered, stakeholders were happy, teams were buzzing with activity—but the core objectives of the project were not being delivered. Staging regular demonstrations provides a great way to check the status of the final output, and nearly anyone can readily identify whether the prototype is where it should be or miles away from the final objective. It’s difficult to fake progress, and if you keep seeing rough edges or critical questions that haven’t yet been answered, this is a stark indicator that your project has deeper problems.

Lack of end-user involvement

Another nefarious danger to seemingly well-managed projects is the risk of delivering something that doesn’t meet the business objectives you set out to accomplish. Your project may be meeting its stated objectives, but if these objectives have drifted away from what’s needed, your project risks successfully delivering an inappropriate output.

The best way to combat this risk is to involve the people who will actually use the outputs of the project on a regular basis. For technology-driven projects, this might mean involving end users early in the testing phases of the project on a large scale. For a process-driven or infrastructure project, it might mean regular demonstrations to mixed groups of the people who will be directly impacted by the project, ensuring that a majority of the participants have minimal interaction with the project team.

Get an expert opinion

Even the most well-run project can benefit from getting an external stamp of approval, especially if this process is embedded in the project from the outset. Getting regular checkups from an impartial internal party or an external consultant can identify problems early, or provide a degree of comfort to project sponsors and stakeholders. As a project manager, it’s easy to get so focused on the details of managing a large-scale project that you lose sight of the larger objective, and end up being a passenger on a ship headed for a rocky coastline completely unawares. An external party can analyze the project at a high level, benchmark where it stands, and provide corrective guidance. This works best when done by the same party at regular intervals, ensuring that whoever does the evaluation has no vested interest in the success or failure of the project.

These three practices can look like an unnecessarily time-consuming and expensive proposition, and they will certainly add time, cost, and a bit of complexity to your project. Holding regular demonstrations takes time away from other work, and corralling users and requesting their involvement in your project can be a logistical nightmare as you attempt to take scarce resources away from their job. Unless your organization has an internal project office that can provide an impartial evaluation, you are likely faced with consulting fees that look unnecessary at the time. However, all these measures are a pittance compared with a failed project. Spotting failure can easily save weeks or months of missed deadlines, a far larger expense compared to the above.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at and you can follow his blog at

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