Red Flags That Indicate Your Project Is Headed For Failure

Apr 15, 2015
6 Min Read

Failure doesn't normally happen on a project without some up front warning. You need to watch out for typical red flags that indicate your project is headed for failure so you can recover before your project is sent into a nose dive.

Project failure is a common topic of discussion among project managers everywhere. No one wants to be that project manager who had the big project that failed. The reality is many projects do fail for a variety of reasons.

But the good news is that most of the time there are subtle warning signs that indicate a project is headed for trouble. Most, if caught early enough, allow time to react and recover to get the project back on the right track.

From what I’ve seen over the years, those red flags show up in three key areas:

  1. Schedule
  2. Cost
  3. People

1) Schedule

Schedules can be tricky. And truth be told, they’re someone’s best guess at what they think it will take to get the project done based on what they know at the beginning of the project. Unless there’s a hard deadline like a government regulation or law that requires a project to be completed by a specific date, most schedules are flexible. That’s a good and bad thing. It can give the project manager some leeway as new discoveries are made during the project, but it can also drag a project out long past when it should have been completed.

The key red flags you want to watch for are 1) requests to compress the schedule with no change in expectations of the outcome, and 2) delays in the ability to accomplish tasks which force dates to be extended. If either of these situations occur, stop the process and discuss what’s happening with the project sponsor and senior management team. Create an action plan to manage expectations which will allow you to complete the project to the client’s satisfaction. Make sure you keep communication lines open and frequently share progress while getting input from key stakeholders.

2) Cost

Projects are normally approved with a defined budget. As the project progresses, there are often change orders that add money to the budget as out of scope issues are discovered and approved. And sometimes, the budget decreases quickly like water from a fire hose but not in step with the tasks of the project. Having a project that’s used half the budget and only completed ten percent of the tasks is not a project you want to be in charge of. Monitoring the budget from the outset will bring this red flag to light way before that happens to give you time to put the brakes on and figure how to course correct. Left unmonitored, failure will be the inevitable.

3) People

You can’t get a project done without people. When things are going well, magic happens. Every task gets done, on time, on budget and to the client’s satisfaction. But there are a lot of places where people can be the red flag in your project. This could be anything from the Project Sponsor being disengaged to a senior leadership team that’s dysfunctional. Or it might happen because there aren’t enough users or subject matter experts involved. The problem could even lie in your project team. Perhaps you’ve been allocated the “junior” staff instead of the more seasoned players your project needs. And it could be you. If you’re new to managing projects, it’s quite possible to fail just because you don’t know any better.

It’s important to make sure you have the right players in the right places to give you the best opportunity for success. This starts with your initial planning and continues through the duration of the project. Communication and goal alignment are critical to minimizing the chance for failure. And being brave enough to pull the plug on the project in a worst case scenario.

What red flags do you watch for to minimize failure in your projects? I’d love to hear your comments below.

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