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Boston Area Troubled Projects - Part II: Execution Performance Factors

How do projects become troubled? Typically there are two paths—by design and/or by steady decline during project execution. Part I (October 2007) of this two-part series dealt with the first of these two paths. Part II discusses project troubles that surface during project execution.

Troubled Projects - Part II: Execution Performance Factors

by Rob Cimini

In Part I we looked at how the clouds of a troubled project can begin forming before the execution phase commences. We defined a troubled project as one in danger of missing any of the specified and approved project objectives. In Part II we look at performance-related factors that surface during project execution. These factors can lead even a well-planned project into troubled territory.

The Origins of Project Deterioration

Deterioration of a well-planned project during execution can often have its origins traced back to how the plan was managed. Consider the project assumptions and constraints established during project initiation and planning. A crucial project initiation step is identifying and understanding the assumptions and constraints imposed on a project. Problems can arise when those assumptions and constraints are not revisited during execution to determine whether they remain valid and accurate.

Changes in assumptions and constraints, once recognized, should be dealt with as part of project performance reporting, a key element of the communications management plan. Project performance reporting can play an important role in team morale and project support by highlighting good project performance; but its real value lies in keeping the project tracking toward its objectives by bringing attention to activities that are off plan. The tendency to minimize or ignore problems in the belief that small inconsistencies won't become significant, is pure folly repeated with alarming regularity.

Once problems are uncovered through the performance reporting process, they must be addressed and resolved. If the quality assurance practices and corrective action process developed as part of a comprehensive project plan are not diligently applied, troubled project activities will grow into troubled projects.

Since financial resources are the foundation on which any project is based, difficulties in this area can quickly bring the entire project to the brink of disaster. But even well-planned budgets can run into difficulties. A cost management response that restricts the resources needed to complete the project scope in an attempt to stem overruns will drive the project into further difficulties. Cost management at this point should involve a re-evaluation of the project budget or a modification of the project scope and objectives.

A significant factor in avoiding troubled project status is the ability of the organization to manage contracted resources. Procurement management is an area of deficiency in many organizations, typically due to a lack of adequate and established practices. For example, vendor qualification is often not treated with adequate rigor and thoroughness. While the vendor's expertise in the specific area of application is vital, reliability and the ability to deliver on the agreed-upon statement of work are very much tied to their project management infrastructure. Deficiencies here will require the appropriate management investment by the owner to avoid a negative impact on the project. Outsourcing has the benefit of relieving demands on some internal resources but it increases demands on others. Inadequate attention to managing the details of outsourcing can start the troubled project storm clouds gathering.

All these factors can ultimately affect the project's greatest resource – the project team. The motivation and morale of the team cannot be underestimated with regard to their impact on project success. As the signs of a troubled project begin to appear, the team can become fragmented and a blame game may ensue, with individuals looking for political allies. Preventing the team from deteriorating into dysfunction is the responsibility of the project manager. The skills needed to carry the project through execution are different than those needed during initiation and planning. Strong facilitating and problem-solving skills are essential and deficiencies in these areas on the part of the project manager will make it difficult to overcome obstacles such as team conflict that inevitably arise during project execution.

Additional sources of trouble are shared by all projects during execution - Project Pressures and Project Dynamics. If not properly managed, these potential obstacles can take a well-planned project into troubled status.

Project Pressures

Stakeholders, particularly senior management, are prime sources for pressure exerted on the project objectives and deliverables. A stakeholder's lack of attention to the original project plan, change in thinking on agreed-upon project objectives or re-evaluation of market conditions are some of the factors that can bring stakeholder pressure to bear during project execution.

Stakeholder pressure can take multiple routes of impact. For example, attempting to accelerate the schedule can lead to a compression of the project phases. That is, the phases of the project life cycle (eg. design and engineering, procurement, installation, commissioning, etc.) may become blurred without a distinct transition between them. This can be the basis for trouble. As the phases become somewhat superimposed, reactionary task management can result as predecessor tasks are not adequately completed to support the successor tasks. The result can be stalled project activity, rework and cost overages plus potential schedule delays. These pressures can be dealt with as part of the anticipated project dynamics by applying robust processes for monitoring and control, specifically change control and risk management.

The Dynamics of Change Control

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Having a formal change control process that is integrated with a corrective action plan is the key to preventing project pressures from sending the project off-track. While the change control process is a critical component of any viable project plan, its execution can be another matter, requiring team members to document all potential changes and see them through a formal approval process.

An effective change control process requires that all change requests, regardless of their source, be clearly documented. This is followed by a comprehensive and formal assessment of the potential impact of the change on the project objectives. After assessment, the change must proceed through a formal approval process. Approvals should include key stakeholders, such as the customer and senior management, identified during the planning phase of the project. Depending on the size of the project, a standing change control board may be established for the duration of the project.

A change control process that is totally integrated, addressing the impact of changes on performance indicators and objectives (cost, schedule, etc.), is essential to avoid the onset of troubled project status. Fully integrated change control requires a formalized approval process, ensures that approved changes are reflected in the pertinent areas of the project plan and, finally, triggers appropriate corrective actions.

The Dynamics of Risk Management

Working in concert with integrated change control is the management of risk throughout the project. A comprehensive risk management plan developed during project planning recognizes the changeable nature of risk throughout the project life cycle. Lack of attention to this dynamic area can result in the team being blind-sided by a risk event that develops because the plan was not properly monitored during project execution. Additionally, new risks may arise during the course of a project, requiring updating of the risk management plan. Lack of monitoring the risk condition of deliverables and activities throughout project execution increases the chance for a troubled project.

It is a reality of sound project management that there is no designated coast period during the project life cycle. A well-planned project is always vulnerable to becoming troubled without adequate due diligence in plan execution. The inevitable project pressures and project dynamics will be a source of obstacles that can take the project down a troubled path. But adherence to a sound project management structure and the guidance of a project manager with the necessary skills to apply and implement that structure, provide the basis for consistently meeting project objectives and avoiding troubled project status.

Rob Cimini is a Principal Consultant with Apogee Management Group. Rob has over 30 years of experience in diverse manufacturing and research responsibilities. He has a Master's degree in chemical engineering and is a certified project management professional (PMP) through the Project Management Institute. Questions or comments on this article should be directed to Rob at rcimini@apogeemg.com

Page last updated: 5 March 2009