7 Warning Signs of Imminent Project Doom

Is your software project in trouble? Before you try to convince yourself that all is well, you should think carefully about the subtle clues I’m about to give you. Your project could be in much worse shape than you think.

Software projects don’t march merrily along until suddenly one day all hell breaks loose and the project is far behind schedule. I know it seems that way on many projects but, trust me, it’s not. Software projects get into trouble at a slow and steady pace until one day it becomes painfully obvious that the project ship is sinking.

We all need to learn how to spot the following early warning signs so we can take corrective action before it’s too late.

  • Stories or feature sets take longer and longer to implement. Things that appear simple turn out to be complex. It seems that every time the team implements a new feature, something else that’s seemingly unrelated breaks. These are signs of too much technical debt. The software has become unwieldy.
  • Team members and/or stakeholders lose interest. You can spot this when people are late for meetings or don’t show up at all. Or, they don’t meet their commitments and you have to chase them down. Lost interest generally occurs when people are assigned to multiple projects and yours is not high on their priority list.
  • Communication breakdowns become more frequent. If people are forgetting to share information or keep the team informed of events that impact the project, they clearly have more important things on their minds.
  • People are working longer hours. If there are people on the team consistently working late or on weekends, something isn’t right. An occasional burst of extra hours to meet a critical deadline is fine. Regular late nights and weekends is not. It will lead to an increase in mistakes and frustrations.
  • Members of the team keep getting pulled away to help out on other projects. Some companies will make an “all hands on deck” call to salvage a troubled project. Invariably, this results in more projects in trouble. If you see this pattern repeating, your project is pretty much doomed.
  • Ignoring declines in team metrics. Even when teams measure their performance using something like velocity or earned value, they often ignore deteriorating performance. Their attitude is that it’s a temporary glitch and will improve. Really? If you see dropping productivity and missed deadlines, it will only get worse.
  • Project scope keeps getting reduced. Missed deadlines and commitments are often met with reductions in scope to keep the timeline intact. That’s not such a bad thing unless it occurs over and over again.

If you spot any of these warning signs, take action — don’t ignore the situation. Hopefully, the organizational environment is such that open and honest communication can take place. You need to assess the situation and take corrective action before the project enters a death spiral.

If your management doesn’t want to hear bad news, before long your project might be on the receiving end of an “all hands on deck” call. Sadly, that won’t solve your problems. It may actually make them worse.

Updated: May 30, 2012 — 10:08 pm