Tuesday 12 May 2015

Weak Project Manager - Early Warning Signs of Project Failure

When a project team has a weak project manager who cannot effectively lead the team or is poor at communication with the clients/business management it is a strong early warning sign of IT project failure. 

Early in my career as a technology development manager I used to dislike several project managers. They were bossy, abrasive, pointed out my faults and seemed to spend ages just chatting with business management. These people seemed to flout the established departmental rules. What I came to realise was that these people were in fact great project managers who delivered projects on time, on budget and good functionality.  They had good communications with business management and made sure the technology aligned with business needs. In managing the teams they were intolerant of excuses or lack of clarity. These project managers wanted to know about genuine problems so they could martial appropriate resources to handle the issues, they were supportive when things go wrong. They provided leadership while possessing sufficient technical skill/experience to manage and motivate a multi-discipline team of engineers.

I am often called in to rescue projects that have gone wrong. They are late, over budget and or the team is poorly motivated. The business management executives may have lost confidence in the team. One of the first things I examine is the Project Manager. Does this person demonstrate the skills necessary to lead the team and communicate well with the client? Does he/she maintain team discipline and have a tight grasp on progress? Is he/she too tolerant of excuses for failure to meet delivery? Does the PM control the scope of the project and the budget?  Without a good leader it is inevitable the project will drift off course.

I've seen situations where the project manager has excellent academic qualifications in project management techniques but just lacks the necessary leadership, communication and control skills. They've often been relieved when I take action to remove them from the leadership role. I'll usually try to rescue such people and give them opportunity to develop their skills as a supporting team member. It's (usually) not their own fault they were given a role beyond their capabilities. 

A different problem can arise when the Project Manager lacks the necessary technical skill. They may be a great leader, but lack the knowledge to question the progress reports provided by technical team members. In these cases team morale can be destroyed as progress is falsely reported or resources are poorly allocated. I saw a case recently where repeated failures to meet application program delivery dates were not challenged by the Project Manager, the team just rescheduled, shuffled priorities and added more contract staff. The underlying performance issues were not addressed. The project ran over a year overdue, had reduced functionality and was massively over budget.

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