Project Management Institute

Reality project management — troubled projects

9 additional examples of troubled projects and recommended solutions

Joan Knutson, President, PM Guru Unlimited

#1 Not Defining the Scope of the Project Clearly at the Beginning

What is the penalty or fallout for not fully defining the scope of the project at the beginning? The “Buyer” is anxious to see the work commence! In a manner of speaking, pay now or pay later. It is preferable to spend the time in the definition phase rather than at the end of the project fixing the mistakes or omissions because of misunderstandings concerning the scope. The absence of a detailed, full definition has given birth to the expression, “unscheduled field testing,” where corrections are made at the end of the project.

Suggested Solutions

  • Reflect the time required for the definition effort in the work breakdown structure, in the resource-loading plan, and in the budget.
  • Convince everyone that it is essential to eliminate misunderstandings of scope at the inception. Why not learn from our previous mistakes?
  • Set up a strong change control process where each change of scope is investigated and recorded, and its impact upon time, resources and dollars are properly reflected in revised project plans.
  • Know when to say “No!” The project will not begin until the scope is defined to a satisfactory level of detail.

#2 Allowing Changes of Scope Without Documenting Them and Determining Their Impact Upon the Schedule, Resources and Budget

When is the last time that you’ve heard; “Well, you should have known…” or, “Of course, that was part of the scope”? Perhaps this sounds familiar; “We’ve always done it that way before” or “Could you do me a favor and make this one small change”. Each of these changes in scope in and of themselves may be minor; but the compound effect of individual changes will drain an inordinate amount of your resources and may delay the completion date of the project. When your boss asks you why your project is slipping and your response is, “Because there have been so many changes of scope.” What are you going to do when he or she says, “Prove it!”

Suggested Solutions

  • Sell the idea of change control. It is not either a war of memos or a C.Y.A. (cover your…) system. It is nothing neither more nor less than a professional way of tracking the inevitable changes that occur in any project.
  • Design the change control system to provide for a formalized approach to major changes, and a less formal log for minor changes.

#3 Never Establishing Communication Channels at the Beginning of a Project

The project cannot be conducted from an ivory tower. It is called a project team because it is constituted of a group of people who work together toward a common goal. By announcing that a team has been established does not necessarily make it an accomplished fact. If the project manager does not establish and maintain open communication channels, misunderstandings will occur, people may work at cross-purposes, and you will not be well informed.

Suggested Solutions

Publicize the team members widely. Define clearly the role of each team member. The subsequent assignment of prime and supporting responsibilities within the work breakdown structure will confirm these roles.

  • Establish the frequency for review meetings. Attempt to schedule these meetings at the same day and time each month to facilitate everyone planning their time.
  • Be clear as to the content and frequency of statues reports. Fully define the validation process that you will use to assure the integrity of the statues reports. Short interval scheduling and measurable deliverables support that concept.
  • Establish an ongoing dialog to encourage people to talk to each other and to you. Don’t make yourself the single channel for information; however, do not permit major decisions to be made without your concurrence.

# 4 Never Establishing Control Mechanism to Track and Monitor the Project

No matter how concerned a manager you are the project will not manage itself. Even if you make numerous enquiries and spend a lot of time with the project team members, you will still need a formalized tracking and controlling mechanism…. If that investment is not made, you will be managing conjecture. In this world of uncertainty, the project manager should maintain as much control as possible. A well-defined tracking and monitoring process can enhance this control.

Suggested Solutions

  • Set-up the tracking process before the project has stated, not after it is well underway.
  • Communicate the process to everyone involved, what they must do and how ever member of the project team and the project will benefit.
  • Make it as simple and as easy as possible to support the process. Remember your team members have many responsibilities; filling out progress reports is not the highest item on their priority list.

#5 Deserting the Control Mechanism When the Project Starts Getting Into “Management By Crisis”

As one of my clients told me, as soon as his project manager starts canceling review meetings and stops answering phone calls, he knows something is wrong. When the project starts down the tubes, it is instinctive to eliminate the time and effort going into the preparation, distribution, and review of project status. Later there will be a heavy penalty paid for the time saved. This is the point when reassessments are needed more than ever. If you don’t maintain the most basic tracking tools, you take the risk that the project may go totally out of control.

Suggested Solutions

  • Don’t worry about how fancy the reports are or about the graphics at the review meeting, just have the basic data available.
  • Make the meetings as short as possible.
  • Concentrate on problem isolation, problem resolutions, actions items and accomplished deliverables.

#6 Dealing With Continual Reorganization

Reorganizing for the sake of reorganizing causes tremendous damage to the productivity of any project team. Moving the formal project management office to a functional manager with decentralized control and then to a dedicated task force only tends to confuse rather than correct. If those reorganizations have been designed from the beginning to be responsive to the changing needs of different phases of the project, then reorganization makes good sense. However, if reorganization is the knee-jerk reaction to a project that is not proceeding well, then that reorganization will probably disorient and confuse the project team members.

Suggested Solutions

  • Proactively plan reorganizations; just don’t let them happen.
  • Recognize that reorganization will have a major impact on your project. To believe otherwise is naïve.
  • Bringing talent in and out of the project can accomplish the same thing as reorganization without the reverberations.
  • If necessary, implement essential reorganizations to coincide with the completion of a phase of the project.

#7 Committing to Arbitrary Dates With No Real Basis for Setting Those Dates

For example, the first product will be shipped on the tenth. The advertising campaign will start before Christmas. The recruiting and training will be over before vacations. Sound familiar? Arbitrary dates cannot be force-fit into a project at someone’s whim. It is essentially a matter of when the project can start and the interrelationship and dependencies of the activities. Planning is a technical process, not a political one!

Suggested Solutions

  • Determine the rationale behind the selection of a date. If it is a hard date, treat it seriously and determine what resources need to be devoted to make it happen. If it is a soft date, then negotiate for a reasonable time frame in which to complete it.
  • Use all the tools at your disposal to determine whether it is unreasonable tool such as WBS, dependency analysis, good time estimating, etc.
  • Convince, persuade, prove the inappropriateness of the date (S); but always be in a position to provide viable alternatives.

# 8 Not Freezing the Specifications

Tell your “Buyer” that you can walk on water, but it helps if they can freeze it. There is a point in time when the changes to the specifications must stop. Or should I say that the changes to specifications without a revision to time or financial requirements must end. If this date is not specified, changes will be ongoing. And the later in the game that the change makes its appearance, the more difficult it is to modify the original design.

Suggested Solutions

  • Providing enough time for changes from the beginning of the project until the specs are frozen.
  • Confirm that everyone understands that” frozen” means that anything done subsequently will have a price, and not only in terms of financial cost. The question is—are they willing to pay?
  • As a compromise, negotiate a series of changes in phase II, III or IV, which will be implemented under a revised project budget and time frame.

#9 Inability to Say “No!” When We Know It Is Impossible

Do our egos prevent us from saying “NO!”? Or, is that we’re afraid that they will find someone else who will get the job? Perhaps, it is because we have no proof of documentation other than a gut feel with which to fight the battle.

Suggested Solutions

  • Establish a professional project management process: solid schedules, good tracking mechanisms, meaningful reporting tools.
  • Say “No!” soon enough. If you wait until it is too late, you may have painted yourself (and the project) into a corner from which you cannot extricate yourself.
  • Gain enough credibility and respect from the project sponsors so that they trust your judgment.


In conclusion, the results and performance of projects, and often project managers, are adversely affected by a combination of poor planning and/or continual changes in the following:

  • Organizations
  • Specifications
  • Communication channels
  • Personnel
  • Planning
  • Project control

To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Dedicate the time necessary to develop proactive strategies to offset these 13 possible project pitfalls.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2008, Joan Knutson
Originally published as a part of the 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado USA



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