I’ve worked on or alongside many projects that were on the long, slow death march to failure. Unfortunately, when the shit began to hit the fan, inevitably the project leaders and managers would “demand” that everyone work harder in order to successfully deliver the project. It never worked. The projects failed, the project managers jumped ship, and staff moved onto other projects. It was always so demoralising.
So what’s the answer? How can you rescue a doomed project?
Here’s an example of the things I kept hearing from the project leaders:
“It’s a hard deadline, we can’t miss it.”
“All these features are mandatory and it’s all been signed off.”
“We can’t afford to hire any more people. The budget is already allocated.”
“We haven’t got the time to spare to add that [improvement]. There’s no room for that work in the project schedule.”
Based on what the project managers of these doomed projects felt they couldn’t do, here’s my recommended list of remedies for these project maladies!
- Extend the deadline. Too many projects seem to have an arbitrary deadline eg end of the calendar year, start of the financial year, before the boss’s performance appraisal. In most cases the deadline is chosen first and the project planned to deliver to that deadline without much consideration for how long such a project requires. Often, because no one pushes back and says no to the boss or client, projects end up trying to deliver too much in too little time. So, when a project starts to look likely to miss its deadline, the easiest thing to do is to change the deadline and I’d always start with this option first. Unfortunately, it may be a genuine hard deadline, there may be flow on dependencies, contract overrun costs, the marketing may already be done, and the business may have already publicly committed itself – pushing back the deadline may be a major embarassment. That may be the case but I bet that a failed project is going to be even more embarrassing and professionally damaging than coming in a month or two late.
- Reduce the scope. If the project looks like it won’t be able to deliver its commitments before the deadline then simply deliver less by reducing the scope. Focus on the most important features, prioritise and put “nice to have” features on hold. Look at all the outstanding tasks and determine what you can do without. Perhaps the project doesn’t need to have a spiffy graphic design – go with something basic and functional. Perhaps 10 features will allow users to perform 80% of what they need rather than trying to do the original set of 20 features. Perhaps you can get by with less user research, user testing, a more simple architecture, forget about getting 100% redundancy or 100% automation. Analyse the pros and cons of doing and not doing something. Delivering something is more likely better than not delivering anything at all.
- Increase resources. Hire more staff, more coders, more testers, more business analysts. Often this is a step that an ailing project will try first but it takes time to find, hire and train new staff. No one hits the ground running. Just think about the effort involved in getting someone on board and up to speed with the project as an efficient member of the team. Bringing in a new person at the last minute with the big deadline looming is only going to cause more disruption and lost time than it’s worth. This option only really works if you have identified early on that you won’t make the deadline with your current resources.
- Improve processes. This one is the hardest of the lot. If you can’t do any of the previous three items, then this is all you are left with. It basically means looking at your existing processes and removing waste and duplication, making your team more efficient so that you end up doing more with less. This takes an investment of time though, time that could be spent working on the project directly or even hiring new staff. You need to analyse your processes, you need to know where improvements can be made. Then you need to actually implement the changes. Again, the return on investment is greater when you focus on process improvement early on in a project. And what do you do when you are already pretty efficient? Go back to step 1!