How to Protect Yourself Against Problem Projects

Even projects that start strong can begin to unravel as time goes on. Sometimes the problem lies in scope, budget or other issues that are beyond the team’s control, but in other instances the issue lies with the team, either in whole or in part. It’s not surprising. Each project team has to figure out how to get along, how to work together and — if it’s an Agile team — what each individual’s role is to be.

Finger PointingDuring one Agile project, I faced an interesting turn of events. My team started out in such a positive way that I almost was in shock. Everyone was playing nice. Everyone was doing their job. Requirements were being met. Code was being delivered. It went that way for several months, until the first major install. Then everyone seemed to fall off. The situation became more and more apparent when requirements were missed, tasks failed, and we had problems with that install.

The team wasn’t perfect, but the situation couldn’t entirely be laid at its feet. Of course, that didn’t keep management from turning a blind eye to the overall picture and simply blaming them. So now what?

At some point, all project managers are going to face this kind of situation. For when you do, here are ways to help educate all of a project’s players and protect your team.

Document Along the Way

Don’t ever take this effort for granted. In those instances when I haven’t been diligent, I’ve always come to regret it later. For those of you who don’t take the time, start now! It’s never too late. It makes life easy when a situation or project sponsor needs information, and that helps keep your stress level down. I literally save everything I get and archive the items that don’t seem as important. I keep “decisions” close by so I can always respond quickly to any questions or challenges.

Official News

In every project, broadcast official decisions as news to everyone involved. I’ve found that sometimes I get my “official signoff,” but then forget to inform those that really count — the ones higher up the food chain. Get in the habit of documenting decisions and sending them off for agreement. Include each group impacted and your manager. If you work in a larger organization, this is essential.

Be Friendly

I’m not saying be friends, but be friendly. Establish relationships so that if things go sour, you have something to fall back on. When things get bogged down, it’s a lot easier to break it when you have cordial relationships with everyone involved. Also, good relationships build your credibility.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Even if a project seems to be going smoothly, don’t close your eyes. You need to keep an eye out for little signs that problems are starting. The sign might be someone’s mood or demeanor, the timing and quality of deliverables — just about anything. Once you see things slip in any capacity, you need to start evaluating and examining the situation. Can you turn things around, or is someone simply having a bad day.

Fill In The Gaps

If you know that a team member is failing, you need to find ways to manage the issue. Beyond documentation and other controllable things, PMs often can’t easily manage the person since they may not be their direct resource to begin with. You need to have a risk plan in place for each team member that includes how to move forward in spite of problems. At the same time, you need to be documenting issues and raising them up the ladder if they become unmanageable within the team.

Take It to Management

If you’re at the point of going to management, start with your own and bring your documentation for them to look at. You might be missing something. But either way, get aligned with them to understand your options.

But be smart. Don’t just go without suggestions. Always have a plan so your manager understands that you’re using your brain. If you show up with nothing, you may get the same in return.

If you are a consultant, be very diligent about these plans. Always perform better than those around you. If not, figure out why you’re not and fix it. That sounds harsh, but I always look in the mirror and figure out if I’m the one who’s slacking. Ask yourself if these issues are your issues. If you can honestly answer no, then dig deeper.

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