4 Signs Your Project Is in Trouble (And How to Save It)
Are you a project manager experiencing ‘that sinking feeling?' One minute, everything seemed to be going well - then suddenly, you feel like you've hit a brick wall?

Don't worry, we’ve all been there. The truth is that no project worth pursuing is ever easy. Things get tougher. Resources, whether human or financial, get tight. Technical problems snarl things up. Deadlines loom, then slip away. Slowly, you feel like you’re drifting off course.

As a project manager, all this can be extremely worrying. But it’s also common – and you can recover from it. It’s simply a case of spotting the warning signs, and taking the right action to get back on track.

Experience helps, as does training, but so can this guide. We’ve outlined 4 of the most common ways a project can run into trouble, and how to deal with them. Let’s get you back on track.

Bored Team

1. Team members lack focus

The pitfall: When you’re managing a project, it’s vital that you have a focused team to command. They should be committed to getting tasks done as quickly, and as well, as possible.
That doesn’t always happen. A major sign your project is going off the rails is when your team members don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Or perhaps they just aren’t that interested in doing it.

Why does this happen? Well, you could blame your staff, but unless you’re ready to fire and re-hire, then it won’t do much good. It’s better to begin by looking at things you can control – starting with possible failings in communication from the project manager (that's you!).

To be focused, your project team needs to feel supported. They should know what to do next and – importantly – why they’re doing it. They need to feel they’re always working towards a worthwhile goal. This can go wrong when the team feels:
  • Management is absent or uncaring.
  • They haven’t been informed clearly about their goals.

The solution: Make sure you have regular, open lines of communication with your team. Simple actions you can take include:
  • Communicating short and long-term goals to the team.
  • Holding regular team meetings to discuss progress and problems.
  • Being available for team members to talk to, whether in person, by email or by phone.
  • Being present often, so that the team can see your own commitment to the project.
  • Being ready to support the team through issues and helping with problem solving.

With this kind of communication and leadership, your team can quickly regain its focus.

2. Upper management is slow to sign things off

The pitfall: Many projects rely on the support of a higher level of management, which has the power to cancel or change what you’re doing. When upper management is fully committed to your project, all is usually rosy; they’re interested in your progress and quick to approve new funding and resources. But when they stop acting that way? It’s a sure sign their enthusiasm for the project is waning, and you could be in trouble.

The solution: You can’t control external forces that could scupper your project, but you can influence your own managers and keep them on your side. The more senior management feels engaged with and confident in your project, the longer they will support it. Try these methods:
  • Organise monthly meetings with senior management. Use these meetings to highlight your progress and the useful outcomes your project offers
  • Provide regular progress reports. This will boost management confidence in the project and your ability to lead.

3. You’re always fire-fighting

The pitfall: No project runs smoothly from start to finish. But if you’re constantly dealing with unexpected problems, your progress will be slowed and your costs will increase. This could endanger your whole project. Dealing with niggling problems also takes your focus away from what you should be doing – namely managing your team and looking after the bigger picture.

The solution: You need to get to the root of recurring problems, so you can stamp them out and get back to work. Sometimes that means going back to basics, to reconsider how effective your project plan really is. Consider:
  • Re-assessing the threats and weakness of your project. Are they bigger than you anticipated, and how can you deal with them?
  • The work systems your team is using, such as IT programs. Do they need to be replaced, or do team members need further training?
  • Problematic team members. If individuals are the cause of recurring issues, could training or replacing them be the solution?

These examples may not apply to your project. But the need to fix recurring problems at the root does.

Team Fighting

4. Your team doesn’t work well together

The pitfall: Projects of all sizes need good cooperation between team members. Let’s assume you have a team of three: a designer, an engineer, and a tester. Each role is specialised, and each member relies on the work of the others to do their own. They also need to share feedback and ideas, to become greater than the sum of their individual skills. If your team is bickering instead of collaborating, then you have a major problem on your hands.

The solution: Teams are worse at cooperating when morale is low. So, if any of our previous three pitfalls apply to your project, applying those solutions can help. If not, it’s time to build some team spirit. Individual team members won’t always get on as friends, but they can work well together when they respect and trust each other as colleagues.
Proven methods include:
  • Team-building exercises. It doesn’t have to be paintballing in the woods – you could set fun group challenges and activities in the workplace.
  • Organising social events that can help team members get to know each other.
  • Mediating disputes between team members. Help both sides to see the other point of view and come to a place of mutual understanding and respect.

Time to get back on track

It’s easy to worry when your project seems to be slipping out of your control. But the truth is, most problems can be fixed. You just need the right methods and perspective - and now you know the warning signs, and the solutions, you can get things back on track. It won’t be the last time you have to wrestle a project back on course – but that’s project management for you!