This Is What I Learned From Experiencing A Troubled Project



CEO | Performance Coach | Instructional Design Specialist

25 July 2005 is very fresh in my mind. On that very day, a team of fierce-looking auditors from the Public Accounts Committee arrived at the doorstep of my organization in Lumut all the way from Kuala Lumpur with a single objective; to audit our project performance. If you must know, the outcome of that audit work turned out to be extremely interesting.

If there’s a project management related textbook called How to Kill a Project, I’m confident that the outcome of that audit made can be a great input for it. Putting my thick-skin face here, I must admit that our project was in massive trouble. The whole project management team members were demonstrating the lowest level of project management maturity ever. Our project management performance was so bad; it resulted in the acquisition of our company by another entity. Long story short, timely intervention by the new management and commitment of the project team members resulted in successful completion of our New Generation Patrol Vessel (NGPV) project by end 2010. I am privileged to be one of the project team members of both sides – a massive troubled and a successful one.

Key lessons from a troubled project.

About 3 years ago, I was invited to conduct a workshop titled Managing Troubled Project in Singapore. I was whispering to myself a day before the workshop, who am I and what’s my qualification to facilitate those experienced international professionals? While my PhD, PMP and few other credentials may look good in CV, being part of a troubled project was indeed my greatest qualification. To me, failure can be a great teacher. It provided me with an opportunity to learn from failures. I thank my lucky star; I survived and managed to learn from that troubled project. In today’s highly competitive project environment, you may not be as lucky as I was.

Remember, a project doesn’t get into trouble suddenly. Project often shows symptoms of trouble. The problem was that I was too busy with daily project activities to notice symptoms of trouble. Worse still, I was an accidental project manager too at that time. I was not even aware of these symptoms. Being busy and working late hours seems to be common practice in projects. I would like to advise you against this habit. I’ve been there and I’ve done all that, it is not worth it. Today, being a little bit more experience, I keep asking myself, is there any real outcome and the positive impact of being busy?

What are the symptoms of a troubled project?

I came across a Troubled Project Recovery Framework (TPRF) written by Havelka and Rajkumar of Miami University, USA. TPRF is an excellent framework, sharing a total of 108 symptoms in 11 key areas. I could easily relate to almost all the symptoms of the troubled project available on that framework, to mine back in 2005. Therefore I would recommend you as a project manager to use this framework to determine the possible indicators of problems. Please carefully go through the checklist based on these 108 symptoms. Realising the long-term impact of these symptoms may inspire you to pay attention. My experience in the previous troubled project helped me to realise the value of TPRF. How I wish our project team were aware and applied this framework back then. Millions of Ringgit and major frustrations from the troubled project could have been minimised.

Risk Management Can Minimize Troubled Project.

Another important lesson from our troubled project is benefits of project risk management. Imagine you wake up one morning with a huge pimples .I am sure the pimples will get your immediate attention. However, medical check-up to minimize risk of heart attack often get rescheduled. Sounds familiar! Just like medical check-up, project risk management often don’t get the priority it deserves. While the term “prevention is better than cure”, is well known, it is not practiced well. So, please.

Manage Risk and be Productively Lazy.

Peter Taylor, the author of The Lazy Project Manager: The Art of Productive Lazinessdescribed why and how to apply a focussed approach to project management. Hold on, I am neither advocating you to become a lazy person nor suggesting unproductive meetings, unprofessional behaviours or surviving based on office politics as these could potentially be an easy pathway to exit door from your organization, but I’d like you to just have a go at what Peter Taylor is saying. The article emphasises the requirement to prioritize on what really matters. In another word, don’t make minor things big.

Project risk management will allow us to determine and manage high risks. Risk management is indeed a proactive approach that may allow us the privilege of practising the art of productive laziness. Project environment is often focused on the next deliverables and payment schedule. Yes, the next payment schedule is definitely important. However, preventive action with effective project risk management could save millions of Ringgit. I am talking from a bitter experience. A fraction of project resources for risk management would definitely bring great ROI, that’s for sure. I normally share the video of Dr David Hillson when facilitating topics of project risk management. David is also known as a Risk Doctor. David’s approach to project risk management is very practical and simple. He suggests project managers ask and answer the following 6 questions:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. What might affect us?
  3. Which of the factors are most important?
  4. What should we do about it?
  5. Did it work?
  6. What changed?

These 6 questions are easy, intuitive and common sense. However, I realise that common sense is not really common. I often wonder why my colleague and I in that failed project can’t even realise the benefits of identifying symptoms of project trouble and manage project risk. I seriously hope that you don’t make the same mistakes I did.

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