Myth #11: A New Project Manager Would Recover An Out-Of-Control Project – Part #1 (Lesson 30)
The transformation project seemed to be going so well…
Status reports had been showing good progress. The project manager had been as upbeat as ever. And, judging by the supplier invoices that had been received, the project should have been well on the way to completion of the current phase.
However, things were not as they seemed. And after a couple of key personnel resigned, rumours had started to surface about ‘trouble with the supplier’.
Investigations by senior management found a lot of friction between the project team and the project manager. They also discovered that various interim deliverables from the supplier were incomplete and overdue, but that both the supplier and the project manager were confident that the time could be made up.
A few days before the due date for the interim deliverables, the project manager announced that ‘unforeseen technical issues’ meant that it would take another few weeks to complete the deliverables.
A number of months later, after the project manager had pushed back the date several times, the senior management team had completely lost faith in the project team’s ability to deliver against their promises.
The project team, for their part, were now openly hostile towards the project manager.
There was a sense of shock (but also relief) from the project team when they were called together to be told that the project manager had been fired. The supplier had also agreed to replace their project manager in a few days’ time.
With optimism and a renewed sense of purpose – and additional controls and project management oversight in place – the project was restarted.
Within a few months, however, it was apparent that the project was still in deep trouble. What was wrong?
Despite the replacement of two project managers, the transformation had entered that non-standard phase of the project life cycle known as the ‘Project Death Spiral’.
What is a Death Spiral?
The use of this term in ICT projects derives from the aviation industry. It refers to the situation when an aircraft enters a spiralling dive (hence graveyard spiral or death spiral). This usually happens when a pilot becomes disoriented with little or no visual reference to the horizon – and is either not paying attention to flight instruments or does not believe or understand what they are showing.
In an aircraft, not trusting your instruments can get you into trouble very quickly. On a digital transformation project, accurate project metrics are your ‘flight instruments’.
Project managers ignore their flight instruments at their peril.
All too often, projects start getting into trouble, but the warning signs are either not seen, or not heeded. That means that the right actions are not taken. Why does this happen?
Here are just a few of the scenarios that can lead up to the first signs of trouble.
- In some instances, the project manager may not recognise that a problem exists. They will therefore carry on as normal until the tell-tale signs – and the underlying problem – grow large enough to become apparent.
- Sometimes it is the project sponsor or another stakeholder who spots the first sign of trouble. Because they may not have been involved in many transformation projects before, they will often keep quiet on the assumption that the project manager knows what they are doing.
- On other occasions, a project manager may hope to remedy the situation without formally raising the matter to the project board. Perhaps they get the team to work longer hours, for example.
- If the problem lies on the supplier’s side (perhaps with their product), they may not wish to air what they consider to be ‘dirty laundry’.
Regardless, it is what happens next that is critical to the overall project success, or at very least to the likelihood of delivering to time, quality, budget, and scope.
Failure to recognise early warning signs can lead to an enormous cost blowout.