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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Danger! Danger! The Warning Signs of a Failing Project by Ty Kiisel

As a kid I loved the Lost in Space TV series.  The story, an adaptation of the Swiss Family Robinson, features a 1997 version of the Robinson family on a mission to colonize a planet near the star, Alpha Centauri.  Selected from among two million volunteers for the mission, the Robinsons, their pilot, and their B-9 environmental robot crash land on an unnamed planet after sabotage disables their spacecraft, the Jupiter 2.
The youngest member of the crew, 9-year old Will Robinson, and the robot become companions and playmates on the planet.  Warning Will and the Robinsons of impending danger, the robot's cry of "Danger! Danger!" usually meant something exciting was about to happen.

Although most projects don't have a B-9 robot, there are warning signs that identify a troubled project early enough to do something about it.

The earliest signs that a project is in trouble are hard to measure objectively, but are relatively easy to spot, if you're watching:
  1. Lack of interest: Whether it's a lack of interest within the project team or among project stake holders, it's often demonstrated by people not showing up for meetings, a lack of active participation and feedback, or a poorly energized user base.  This is an early-warning sign of a project in trouble.
  2. Poor communication: If nobody is communicating, including stakeholders, team members, and end users, there could be a problem.
  3. Lack of velocity: Projects should always be moving forward.  The best way to keep a good velocity is to divide your project into small deliverables at frequent intervals.  If the project isn't moving forward, it's likely in trouble.
  4. A "no-bad-news" environment: Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes organizations need to face the reality of negative news.  This includes project team members who don't want to be the messenger and business leaders who tend to shoot the messenger. If there is not an environment where the communication is honest about "reality," projects tend to fail.
Intangible signals aren't the only indicators that a project is in trouble, there are a number of measurable signs as well:
  1. Lots of overtime: A project running on schedule should have little or no overtime.  Overtime is often a quick fix, but leads to poor employee health resulting from too much caffeine, too many late nights, and too much junk food.  (It also leads to mistakes.)
  2. Diversion of resources: When people are pulled from one project to work on something else it could be a sign of trouble.  If you've budgeted your human resources properly, a few hours here and there on a troubled project can quickly add up and cascade down, endangering healthy projects.
  3. Ratios trouble: Cost ratios and schedule ratios are financial metrics that allow business leaders to measure budgeted time and money verses money and time actually spent.  Without metrics, all you have to rely on is the accuracy of the communication you receive from project teams.
  4. Milestones aren't met: This is pretty obvious, but it is surprising how many times this warning sign is ignored.  Small, discrete, and often, are the guidelines for the milestones of a successful project.
  5. Scope changes: A common approach to shoring up a lagging project is to change the scope.  Eliminating features or relaxing requirements is not uncommon, but if project teams are doing it because the project is in trouble, it's a huge warning sign of danger ahead.
Of course, warning signs are not the work management harbinger of doom, they are just warning signs that a project might be in trouble.  Depending on how your organization handles project based work, the right project management tools can help identify potential issues early, when there's still time to do something about them.

How do you spot struggling projects early—when there's still time to take action?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Four Early Warning Signs of a Project in Trouble, by Ty Kiisel

Underground mining is a dangerous occupation.  What's more, before the advent of sophisticated breathing apparatus, methane and carbon monoxide made it even more dangerous for the men working in the mines.  In the early days of underground mining, because their metabolism was susceptible to methane and carbon monoxide poisoning, canaries played an important role in keeping miners safe.
  1. They provided an audible warning: Canaries typically sing most of the time—when they stopped singing, it was a warning sign that they were being overcome by the toxic gas
  2. They provided a visual warning: When they started to sway and fall from their perch, it was a signal that they were succumbing to the poison gas.
Miners who paid attention to the early warning signs owed their lives to the canaries—they were able to recognize the danger and get out of the mine before it was too late.

I think everyone would agree that missing deadlines or exceeding budgets is evidence that a project is probably in trouble.  However, those symptoms are often recognized after it's too late to do anything about it.  Anyone doing project based work knows how important it is to recognize a project in trouble before it's too late.  Not too long ago, I came across this list of early warning signs that every project manager should be aware of:
  1. Direction from management is either missing or inconsistent: The only thing worse than project leadership that is missing in action, is direction that contradicts itself and changes frequently.
  2. Business management and project management aren't on the same page:  If the project gets consistent direction, but it's at odds with company business objectives, there is more than likely a problem.
  3. Project goals are not clearly articulated and understood by the project team:  Although every project usually has a business goal or two—projects without a business objective should probably be reconsidered, right?—often those goals aren't clearly articulated or understood by the project team.  Occasionally, the business objective is thought to be so obvious it's never clearly stated.  Unfortunately this could lead to misunderstanding and inconsistent presumptions about priorities.
  4. Team members don't communicate with each other:  Sometimes, even teams that get along well don't communicate well. Communication and collaboration are essential to any successful project.
Recognizing problems before it's too late to do anything about them is critical to work management success.  Addressing issues early is the best way to save a lagging project, as well as a project manager's career.  What early warning signs to do you watch for?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Tips to Increase Software Development Efficiency - by TLoop

If you are a software developer then you know that your job can be both frustrating and rewarding. Even though it can take many hours and various processes to complete, in the end you know that the software will be just right and work seamlessly. All the hard hours of work will pay off. Remember to follow some simple guidelines to help make your job easier and assist you with the development of your software.

It's important to care about what you do. If you don't then the end product will not showcase your best skills and/or abilities. The software will probably not perform as seamlessly as your would expect. If you feel like you are in a slump as a software developer then step back and re-assess your profession. Maybe you need to change focuses or try to learn something knew so you don't feel like you are performing the same tasks day-in and day-out.

Remember to provide options to your clients. If you are not sure how something can be done try to see if you can learn how to perform certain functions. Over time you will add a new skill set to your tool belt and help grow your knowledge base. Software development is always changing and staying on-top of these changes will only continue to help you.

Create contracts that help protect yourself. You want to make sure that you provide clients with software that meets the outlined expectations, no more and no less. Having a contract that is highly specialized and specific will help you keep your development within the scope of the project. If you don't have a project scope, you may be spending too much time of the project and limiting your revenue growth.

It's increasingly paramount to think about your work. Over time you will develop certain business practices, do these practices hinder your performance or make you more efficient? Outlining and reviewing how you conduct business and develop software is a great way to access factors that can help you with your job.

Take the time to access your performance and review ways that can help your increase your efficiency during the software development process. Overtime you will develop effective and efficient software development practices that help generate fully functioning and powerful software.