Don't ignore these early warning signs that your IT project is going awry

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How do you know when an IT project is going to run into trouble? There are usually plenty of signs early on – but most CIOs fail to take action, according to Mark Settle, CIO of cloud-based identity management company Okta. Settle, a seven-time CIO is author of the new book "Truth from the Trenches: A Practical Guide to the Art of It Management."

In part one of a two-part interview with The Enterprisers Project, Settle explains how to tell when a project is going south and why you should take swift action. 

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): How can you tell when a project is running into trouble?

Mark Settle: Projects can get into trouble for a variety of reasons but the first signs of trouble almost inevitably show up as schedule slips on early milestones. Most project teams – including their managers – convince themselves that early schedule problems can be made up through hard work and smart decisions in the long run, but that's rarely the case. More often than not, early schedule slips expand the cost and schedule of a project or lead to descoping the project's original objectives.

TEP: How do you decide when to try to save a project and when to kill it?

Settle: As a general rule, if a project is less than one-quarter complete I would strongly favor killing it for the time being and planning to start it again at a later date. If it is more than halfway to the finish line I would try to rescope it to salvage as much value as possible. 

If early slippage is due to the failure of business representatives to live up to their commitments in terms of attending meetings, reviewing documents and making decisions, then the probability of achieving the intended results on time and on budget are low. Projects that fail to maintain the enthusiasm and participation of their business partners are generally doomed to failure.

TEP: What are the best ways to communicate with business counterparts and with your team when a project runs into trouble?

Settle: Bad news rarely gets better with the passage of time. Project managers and sponsors have a natural tendency to shield stakeholders from mistakes or unfortunate circumstances because it makes them look bad personally, and may undermine support for their project. Experience has shown that bad news about a project's progress almost invariably gets worse with time. By the time the project team has mustered the courage to discuss significant issues with external stakeholders, the impact of the negative news is almost always much worse than if the early indicators of technical difficulty or schedule slippage had been shared when they were initially discovered. Project teams need to be encouraged to report bad news early and often; and project managers need to socialize such news on a regular basis, regardless of how awkward or uncomfortable such conversations may be.

TEP: What advice would you give CIOs for keeping projects on track?

Settle: Small work teams that are integral parts of much larger projects frequently fail to understand the impact that their performance has on downstream teams participating in the project. Individuals frequently believe that management has established unreasonable schedule targets and therefore don't feel honor-bound to achieve such targets. 

On the other hand, when they realize the impact of their schedule slips on their project colleagues they are far more motivated to stay on schedule. Frequent, standup meetings of all project team members that clearly delineate the interdependencies of the project subteams are the most reliable way to keep everyone on track. When unavoidable slips do occur, and are addressed in these meetings, there will be a collective attempt to make adjustments that keep the overall project on schedule. Dividing a project up into a collection of separate, interconnected work streams makes sense from a technical perspective, but you need to communicate on a collective basis to keep the team focused on major interim milestones and the projectís ultimate objectives.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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Paying attention to early milestones is definitely a good indicator to how the project will track over time. The rule of thumb, using earned value in gauging a project, is that once you are 10% into a project you can tell if it's going to be late. However, the missing element in reporting the real status of the project is the willingness of stakeholders to receive bad news without burning down the messenger.

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