Time-sensitive projects can end up getting derailed for one reason or another despite the best efforts of the most diligent of project management professionals (PMP).

With potential project-killers like inattentive team members, scope creep where companies keep adding more components and requirements, and unrealistic timelines that doom the process from the start, PMPs truly do have their work cut out for them.

Although there are lots of different things that can get projects off track, Lew Sauder, senior project manager at Geneca, insists that project managers can take steps to keep projects away from getting anywhere near the brink of utter ruin. That way, they won’t have to implement any corrective actions to avert falling behind schedule or getting derailed altogether.

“The most common thing that I’ve seen is scope creep when scope starts to get added to the project,” he noted, explaining how a project can get out of control in the first place. “I’m reminded of a children’s book called The Mitten, where a little girl loses a mitten in the snow, and a small field mouse climbs in and then a beaver climbs in and bigger and bigger animals keep climbing into the mitten to stay warm—thinking that one more animal can fit in. And pretty soon the mitten explodes.

“People think that, ‘O, this one little thing won’t matter if I add it into the scope.’ I really think that the project manager needs to take control of every change that occurs and to communicate back to the business…the impact [of the changes].”

Sauder, whose company in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, states on its website that most teams working on projects do not spend enough time addressing things like building common vision, commitment, and business-sensitive metrics, and believes, as do others, that it is no easy thing to successfully see projects through from start to finish.

In interviews with project managers and consultants, InfoSec Institute/Intense School got some advice not only about corrective actions that can help PMPs regain control when time-sensitive projects take longer than expected, but also about what they can do to potentially avoid the stress of having to rollout corrective actions in the first place.

What the Stats Say

A 2012 Gartner survey revealed that approximately half of all project derailments were caused by prolonged delays and functionality problems.

Key findings included the following:

  • Escalating budget costs were the cause of 25% of failures for projects that had budgets exceeding $350,000.
  • The failure rate for big IT projects that had budgets north of $1 million was deemed to be nearly 50% higher than for project that had budgets south of $350,000.

Gartner also included the following recommendations:

  • Increase success rates by determining how to cap the size, complexity, and length of separate projects and by ensuring that the necessary funding has been earmarked.
  • Keep abreast of costs by putting in place the right tools to catch budget variances or overspending sooner rather than later. Routinely look over the cost-estimation process to grasp the accuracy of the process.
  • Ensure that the schedule is realistic, since a lot of big projects get derailed when the scope of the projects change, potentially making the original due date unrealistic.

The survey was based on the findings from some 150 respondents representing organizations in North America, the U.K., France, and Germany.

IBM had previously conducted a survey of 1,500 change management executives and found out that a mere 40% of projects were done on time, on budget, and in line with quality expectations. The most significant hurdles to success, according to the respondents who participated, were changing attitudes and mindsets (58%), corporate culture (49%), and lack of support from senior management (35%).

Top Five Corrective Actions

Asked whether the cause of delays is generally because of the people behind the project or the technology used to get the job done, Alan Willett, president of OxSeeker in Ithaca, New York explained that it’s always the former.

“It’s always people,” said Willett, whose company is a full-service consulting firm that helps organizations to develop staff, processes, tools, skills, and action plans to reach their highest potential. “Of course, you can have inadequate tools, but the problem behind that is, of course, the people not picking the right tools. But clearly the tool is just an excuse.

“I find the biggest problem people have is an inability to see reality, accept reality, and deal with reality. Accepting reality is the hardest thing. Seeing reality is very hard too. Seeing reality means you really have to get a [good] look at what the project is and how much time you have available and how big it really is.”

Daniel Lock, the principal of Daniel Lock Consulting, an Australian firm specializing in change and project management as well as process improvement, explained that project managers who want to rescue failing projects need to avoid playing the role of disappointment managers. People can willingly sign up for fantastic goals, he said, but making these goals a reality is hard work that project managers must be able to accomplish. This means that stakeholders need to prioritize and concentrate solely on the top priorities.

Things unfortunately don’t always go according to plan and when a critical project runs the risk of missing a completion deadline, corrective measures are in order. Some project hurdles are more cumbersome than others, which means that PMP managers or other PMP staff members need to be able to assess what’s wrong and then figure out a way to fix it. Implementing the right fixes can, with a lot of hard work, potentially get projects back on track.

Drawing on their years of experience, Willett and Lock offered some advice as to things that PMP managers can do to save projects that are at risk of falling behind.

According to Willett, PMP managers should, among other things, do the following:

  • Have a sufficiently detailed plan that they and their team immediately have insight when the schedule is in trouble.
  • Ensure that team members track actuals versus estimates in sufficient detail so that there is a clear answer as to why the team is behind at any given point. It’s also important to question whether the delay is because of underestimated tasks or overestimates of how much time is available to work on the project. Another thing to consider is whether a design problem or a requirements problem is to blame.
  • Gather the team for a fast brainstorming session. Consider every possible option to stay on schedule. Mull over questions such as whether the team members can commit more hours and whether there’s flexibility to reduce requirements or design scope. Follow up this meeting with a meeting that includes key stakeholders. Disclose all pertinent details, repeat the brainstorming process, and then decide on a course of action.

Lock added the following things that PMP managers can do to get projects back on track:

  • Understand that projects are inherently uncertain and uncertainty is hard for people to understand and deal with. Unfortunately, decisions need to be made without sufficient information. To counter this, add a buffer of about one-third of the project schedule to the end, and then report on the buffer penetration each week to gauge whether or not the project is still on track. People wouldn’t leave for the airport with just enough time to make the gate, said Lock, adding that they instead leave a buffer for the vagaries of traffic.
  • Slow down to speed up. When a project starts to fail, the temptation is to do more. But, as with a freeway, adding more cars only slows it down. To speed up a project, reduce multi-tasking by focusing on only the critical path, which means resisting the urge to broaden the scope of the project. Batch tasks and prioritize the other projects which are requesting resources, added Lock.

Corrective actions to save projects that are at risk of falling behind schedule are one thing; measures to keep projects from falling behind schedule in the first place are quite another thing. And, fortunately, there are things PMP managers can do to at least minimize the risks of missing deadlines when it comes time-sensitive projects.

Discussing the importance of establishing major milestones, Geneca project manager Kathy Tullio insisted that failing to do so will almost certainly result in missing the mark altogether.

“The project I’m on now we had a resource get into a serious car accident—completely unexpected,” she said. “On another project we had a key stakeholder leave the company, so resources can change, vendor delays can all contribute to delays. How to avoid them or remedy them? One of the things would be benchmarks.

“It’s very important because if you just wait until the end to see if you hit it, you most likely won’t. I would think that you would not make your deadline without the benchmarks or the milestones. We break it down quite a bit to have several of them along the way to make sure.”

Lauder from Geneca added that understanding how to avoid delays means first determining what the usual causes for those delays happen to be.

“There are a lot of things you have to do, obviously,” he said. “The single most important thing…is try to do a restart to try to figure out where are we, how do we go forward—rather than focus on what have we done in the past that has caused problems, who’s at fault. It takes away the psychology of being behind.”