Don’t Let Buried Issues Scupper Your Project

May 6, 2021

The project timeline is hallowed turf for an experienced project manager. More than a North Star, the project timeline is their statement of intent, their public line in the sand, and the starting point for external evaluations of their project.

On time? There’s a good chance the project’s running green. Behind schedule? Expect a shortening of the sponsor’s leash. 

But timelines alone don’t tell the full story. A project can deliver on time yet massively over budget. Or worse, over budget and only on time due to a massively reduced scope. Sure, a good project delivers all three, but it’s hardly uncommon for projects to sacrifice one or two to meet the greater organisational need. Welcome to the world of CRs…

Because they’re simple to grasp, time, cost, and scope are also the way most stakeholders judge a project. But relying on time, budget and scope can also hide trouble. That’s because they ignore a fourth wheel – issues.

Ignore issues at your peril 

Strip any project down and you get a bunch of milestones and achievements. Something like: “The project promises that by this date and deadline we’ll have solved these issues and reached this point”.

But like renovating an old house, project work inevitably uncovers issues – hidden issues – lying latent in the organisation and ready to derail your timeline. And how a project deals with issues is the surest way I know to really judge a project’s health. 

Issues are a lot like fish. Leave them long enough and they start to stink. Completely ignore them, try to hide them away in one of your project’s “hidden cupboards” and they’ll fester. The smell becomes overwhelming, overpowering everything, until they derail everything around them.

Understanding your project’s true state 

That’s why issues are a key health check in any in-flight project review I do. Sure, the time and money is important – but festering issues are like sunken mines, lurking below the surface just waiting to derail the project. Uncovering them is a sure sign things are going wrong. 

That’s why passing projects as green with issues bubbling away is a disaster waiting to happen – the sponsor and stakeholders just see milestones and achievements, time and money, and happily wave the thing on. And that’s also why any project I pass at in-flight review is inevitably helmed by a smart PM.

Tackle the issue before the rot sets in

An unresolved issue might fly under the governance radar, maybe staying hidden right up to the final stages of a project. But an existential issue hitting a project at the end of a waterfall process can be fatal. Think UAT on systems riddled with bugs caused by ignored issues. Or system integration testing on systems without enough relevant and road worthy data. Both have the strong reek of days old fish…

The choices faced by these projects are unpalatable. They either:

  • Launch with defects. And fail.
  • Or never launch. And fail.

Either way the PM and sponsor is on the hook. Don’t let this be you.