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The top 5 signs that your project might be going wrong

As a non executive director you’ll probably have oversight of a number of projects during your tenure but how can you tell if things are going awry when you are remote from the project team? These are my top 5 signs that things might be going wrong.

One of the great things about being a non executive director is that you have the opportunity to take a detached higher level view. This gives you a chance to spot things that look out of place when someone much closer and more invested in the project may not be able to see the signs.

There’s an old saying that ‘there’s nothing new in the world’ and in the universe of projects that’s especially true. One thing that shines out from the reams and reams of literature on implementations is the consistency of the type of problems that projects face. The good news is that NEDs can use that consistency to spot when their firm may be facing issues.

There are really only 3 ways in which a project can be classed a failure – the system is late,  over budget and it’s not to the specification required. Here I present my top 5 ways to spot if any of these is on the horizon.

5 – High spending very early on. Projects, especially those that need infrastructure will incur higher costs early on for things like servers, cabling etc. but staff costs should generally be higher towards the end when you are entering the testing/training phase. If your project has used up a very high proportion of its budget or the spending is not matching the project cash flow predictions then it’s time to ask questions because it may well end up using up all of the money when it’s too late to turn back. Make sure a ‘Cost to complete’ is included in the project reports that the board should be getting regularly from the project team.

4 – Things mysteriously disappear from the schedule. I have honestly seen software houses just leave things out of a project report because they decided it was too difficult to deliver. They hoped that if they didn’t mention it then people would forget that they’d asked for it in the first place! Good organisation is the key here. Make sure that when you receive project reports they include all aspects of the proposed implementation and that the risk register is kept up to date.

3 – Missing early deadlines. Through the life of the project there will be mini deadlines that crop up. Producing a system for a ‘look and feel’ demonstration system for instance. It’s usually a sign of how the company providing the goods does business and it’s folly to think that this leopard will change it’s spots halfway through a project. If your provider starts to miss early deadlines then you need to start exercising the firm’s authority and exert proper control over targets.

2 – The project sponsor goes AWOL. One of the key critical success factors cited in the literature is full high level back up from the project sponsor. Unfortunately they are generally very busy people and often, although the project is the focus of their attention on day one, by the time they get halfway through your sponsor will have moved on to more pressing matters. The difficulty is that this is the point at which their input is most needed. As a NED the sponsor is also your direct link to the project so get them to focus. If something else is taking them away then reassign the task.

1 – Lack of clear direction. This is my absolute number 1 priority for any project big or small. The great thing for a NED is that this can be seen right from day 1. If you read the project description and there is no clear and unequivocal statement of what actually will be achieved by investing the firms money then your project will fail. This is also the point where a good NED can add the most value. Challenge (in a constructive way obviously) all the way to the point where the contract is signed. Make sure that the proposed system is properly and completely planned and scoped so that everyone has a clear sight of what the company want to achieve. If you don’t then you can expect trouble!

Above all my advice is to trust your intuition. If something doesn’t sound right, if the project manager becomes evasive or people begin to stare at their feet when budgets or schedules are on the agenda then it may be time to dig a little deeper!


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