Troubled Projects and Troubled Tasks

We occasionally refer to a project that is behind schedule, over budget, delivering inadequate quality or value, or some combination of these as a “troubled” project.  Meaning, the team has run into trouble delivering on expectations.  Sometimes, this is a function of the expectations, and sometimes it is due to environmental problems.  Other times, it’s a performance problem by one or more key project team members.  When this happens, the trouble can usually be traced to specific tasks.

Most of us manage our projects based on a critical path methodology.  We use a PERT chart to identify and map out those tasks that depend on each other, and estimate the duration of each of them.  The sum of those durations on the longest path defines how long the project will take.  These tasks on the critical path may or may not be the most difficult, or even the biggest contributors to project success, but they have to be done in a particular sequence.  And when one is delayed, the project is delayed.   Thus, a troubled task on the critical path can make for a troubled project.

A critical path task that is running late, or in danger of negatively impacting overall quality, provides a challenge for the project manager.  You can add people, but then you run into Brooks’s Law, “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”  You can hold meetings to investigate why the task is running into troubles, but then you run the risk of making the team feel defensive, and divert their attention away from the task.  Or you can replace one or more of the people, but then you incur the time and effort involved in the transfer of work in progress.  Or you can demand that people work nights and weekends to catch up.  Or you can step in and be supportive, helping them to stay focused on the deliverable, with an occasional eye on the schedule.  And maybe that additional attention will speed up completion, and maybe it won’t.

Any of these, or any combination, might be the best choice, depending on the task, the environment, the problem, and the people involved.  I’ve seen more than one project fail because of a failed task on the critical path.  Of course, I’ve also seen more than one project recover, because the project manager made the right choice.  In retrospect, the right choice seems obvious.  But when your project looks like it might miss a crucial deadline and incur massive additional costs, or outright cancellation, making that choice can feel like a complete guess.  And this is the time and place where we earn our pay – we make the decision, we communicate it, and we get the project team moving forward.

As project managers, we have to learn to manage confidently in the presence of uncertainty.  We have to recognize that some decisions need to be made based on imperfect information, and be able to determine when we know enough to decide.  Success is rarely perfect, but that’s OK, because perfection is over-rated.  Success, however, is never over-rated, and neither is effective leadership.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.