Troubled Projects and Initiatives – They Don’t Have to Be That Way

Troubled Projects and Initiatives – They Don’t Have to Be That Way


Unfortunately, in almost every industry and in almost every type of organizational initiative, troubled projects exist. Why? Interestingly enough, with respect to technology related projects, (from my 30+ years of experience and observations) technology is rarely the root cause. In today’s day and age, most technology problems can be solved with technology, or at least the creative use of technology. The fact is, most troubled projects are in trouble because of the project leader’s and/or project team’s less than optimal “soft skills”. For example, a project that is suddenly declared $1+ Million over budget or 1 year late (I am always fascinated by the use of the term “suddenly”) is rarely the result of technology issues. The existence of troubled projects is perhaps best described by the “boiling frog” experiment. Place the frog in a pot of boiling water and the frog will jump out (as would I). Place the frog in a pot of cold water and slowly heat to a boil, you cook the frog. Troubled projects gestate over time.

Examples of less than optimal “soft skills” include:

  • Not reviewing lessons learned from previous initiatives so history repeats itself within an organization
  • Having invalid assumptions and not recognizing the assumptions are invalid until it is too late
  • The project team not having the “straight talk” with their peers or the project leader about project related issues
  • An incomplete initiative/project Recovery Plan
  • The Project Leader is not having the “straight talk” with the senior leadership team
  • Dysfunctional project teams and many more.


Early Warning Signs you May Have a Troubled Project

Some early warning signs that a project may need corrective action are:

  • Instead of providing the “straight talk”, Project Leaders tell the senior leadership team, what the project leader believes they want to hear
  • Key Earned Value indices, such as the Cost Performance Index and/or Schedule Performance Index are declining 2 – 5 percentage points per month. (Earned Value will be discussed in the Cost Management blog.)
  • Project sub-team leads are not discussing their key dependency concerns with their sub-team counterparts
  • Project Leaders are telling the senior leadership team (or, project sub-team leaders are telling the project leader) they do not need “outside help” on an initiative (when in fact they do) – Team afraid they will be viewed as “weak”

These are all symptoms that an organization’s project leadership capabilities are not optimal and increase the odds of the initiative/project requiring corrective action downstream.

Suggestions You May Find Useful

Although there is never a single, silver bullet that can solve all troubled projects, Project Leaders can minimize their risk of having a troubled project by doing the following:

  • Develop an initiative Recovery Plan that takes corrective action to improve cost, schedule, quality and/or other key issue(s);
  • Ensure there is a two way feedback loop between the Recovery Plan effort and the organization’s Lesson’s Learned Repository/Process so, within the organization, history does not repeat itself;
  • Determine, test and update assumptions early and often. Project assumptions can give you clues on where to look for potential trouble areas;
  • Having the straight talk with the senior leadership team. If a project needs key resources or, is stuck, do not be afraid to disclose “bad news”. My perspective is “bad news” is like Accounts Receivable, it gets worst with age;
  • Make sure your project sub-team members are in close communication so they can quickly discuss, and resolve dependency issues, that affect their team’s ability to deliver their respective work packages

There are other activities Project Leaders can do to minimize corrective action on their initiatives but, they will not be covered during this blog. So, stay tuned to this website.

How We May Be Able to Assist

Hendon Group, Inc. may be able to assist your organization with:

  • Initiative/Project Recovery Plan Development/Review – Understanding Project Leaders and teams have a lot of pride (human nature), work with the initiative Project Leader in either developing the recovery plan and critiquing the recovery plan
  • Assumptions Framework Development / Review – Assist with the development of an organization (or initiative) specific framework to test the completeness of your initiative’s key assumptions
  • “Straight Talk” / “Bad News” Coaching – Coaching the Project Leadership team on having the “straight talk” with the Senior Leadership Team and Coaching the Senior Leadership Team on listening to “bad news”;
  • High-Performance Project Team Performance – Help your organization build individualized and specific project leadership development plans

If you would like to discuss how Hendon Group, Inc. may be able to assist your organization, please do not hesitate to contact us.


Author Ira Hendon (MBA, PMP®) is an expert in program/project leadership consulting and protecting intellectual property. For a no-risk consultation, contact Hendon Group for more information and expert advice. Hendon Group is a full-service program & project leadership professional services & consulting firm, which focuses on helping organizations implement strategic and global initiatives.  To learn more and connect with Hendon Group, email us:; call: 866.201.0147; Or visit our LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook business pages.
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