Project/Programme Early Distress Indicators

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In this post Pete Wilson looks at 9 change ‘distress indicators’, the presence of which may well indicate that there is trouble ahead.

In the context of leadership we recently discussed the two sides of running an organisation, ‘run’ and ‘change’. If you are very lucky all of your change initiatives will be planned, deliberate and well structured. We all know however that you would be REALLY lucky if you spend your life in that space. There are going to be occasions when a project or a programme is foisted upon you, in an ‘emergency’ and you won’t have time to do all the right things from the off. One of the first roles of a project or programme manager is to control what might be perceived across the organisation as a crisis situation.  You may have experienced these before, they often start up in circumstances that seem to inherently prevent success.

With a perceived organisational imperative of starting as soon as possible you are on the hook from day one.   Business leadership often makes the huge assumption that ‘all is well’, but meanwhile it isn’t. The focus is to kick-start the project as soon as possible. In this environment and with the wrong mind-set it would be easy to ignore the very things that ensure everything really is ‘all good’.

It is beholden upon everyone in the team to watch out for the warning signs, anticipate, avoid and rectify. Assuming the right frame of mind right at the initiation stage of a project/programme is essential. What is the right mind-set? It’s one where the team employs all of their previous experiences to identify the symptoms of looming failure and one where they are conscious of the early warning signs. If you understand the warning signs, or ‘distress indicators’ achieving the desired outcome is much more likely to become a reality. From my own experience, I’ve noted these 9 early warning signs that you an initiative may be in trouble

Distress Indicators – People

As you might expect, many of the distress indicators are people related. People are at the heart of any change.

1. Disengaged Stakeholders

To a great extend the success or failure of any given initiative is all about perception. Unless you are rigorous in nailing down what success looks like, the various stakeholder groups will make up their own minds. Those stakeholders that are disengaged or feel alienated will fall on the ‘fail’ side of the perception. That perception, real or not, will interfere with the final objective of the initiative.

My preferred definition of ‘stakeholder’ in the project environment is R. Edward Freeman’s (Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach (1984), where he defines a stakeholder as

‘any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organisation’s objectives’

Where, in the context of any change initiative, the word ‘organisation’ can be replaced with the words either ‘project’ or ‘programme’. Where appropriate stakeholders can be grouped, like ‘users’ or ‘team leaders’ for example, which helps with measuring and addressing specific needs. It’s important to include the programme sponsors as named individual stakeholders.

When engaging with stakeholders look out for the following real warning signs:

  • Unanswered emails, meeting requests ignored;
  • Regularly late for and/or distracted in meetings;
  • Body language (emotional leakage, leans back, everything folded, no eye contact, frequent checking of watch/phone);
  • Difficult to pin down (such as avoiding decisions, gives no view or opinion);
  • Pseudo – compliance (smiles and expresses compliance, but repeatedly fails to deliver);
  • Passive aggressive behaviour (such as procrastination, stubbornness, sullen behaviour, deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish responsible tasks), and
  • Open hostility.

So – it goes without saying that proactive and positive stakeholder ‘buy – in’ is essential. What you’re looking for is they kind of ‘buy-in’ where the stakeholder or group will ‘make’ the change happen, not just ‘let’ it happen.

2. Power Struggles

In a project/programme environment this kind of issue is almost inevitable, especially where business as usual staff are not used to working in a project matrix environment. Where you have influence these instances must be managed (see our discussion on Team Building). Whilst we accept that team members will inevitably seek to find their respective space within a project, where this is allowed to go unmanaged a corrosive effect will ensue and this will threaten the objective of the initiative. ‘Power struggles’ divert energy away from achieving overall project outcomes.

3. The Inexperienced Project Team

An initiative that is the product of a crisis scenario requires the team to ‘think on their feet’ and some people find this more difficult than others. It’s inbuilt into us to rely on our prior experience, allowing us to cope with adverse factors that are often associated with the stressful project environment. A ‘crisis’ project needs to be staffed by experienced and seasoned people. Or Suitably Qualified & Experienced Personnel (SQEP). If the team is not staffed by ‘SQEP’, a tangible lack of confidence will permeate.

4. The Dysfunctional Project Team

Building a high performing team can be a challenge, but it is essential, especially in the ‘burning platform’ ‘crisis’ project environment. It’s important that everyone in the team gets into the delivery focuses ‘norming’ stage as soon as possible. Excellent delivery relies on excellent team work. If the project team is disconnected and hostile, communication will break down, leading to an atmosphere that strains project execution.

5. Personal Agendas

In the perfect world the organisation should be completely focussed on the project objective. However, especially where BAU personnel are involved, it’s not uncommon for people to walk into a project with personal agendas. My experience is that project staff, i.e. those people who are used to working in a ‘matrix’ setup, are less prone to let personal agendas contaminate the environment. Where the problem is apparent individuals may intend to use the project as a platform to attain personal gains. Hidden personal agendas create substantial risk in that they will potentially derail an initiative.

6. Inappropriate Suppliers

Selecting 3rd party suppliers is a rigorous process that takes time. In the ‘crisis’ scenario, unless there is a pre-existing supplier framework in place, with proven partners, appointing a supplier in an emergency, is fraught with risk. Missing out the required rigorous vendor assessment to gauge the suitability of the supplier, seems like a good idea up front, but will potentially cause big problems as the initiative progresses. There are two important issues here, ideally what’s required is a suitable supplier, i.e. one with the right capability and experience, but who is also engaged in the right contractual/commercial context. If either of these items, capability and contractual, is missing, the risk profile escalates.

7.  Poor Supplier Relationships

Notwithstanding the right contractual context for supplier engagement, developing the right relationships in this space is crucial. There must be mutual respect between both supply and client sides of the project, such that there is a clear understanding of each other’s capabilities and responsibilities in delivery is clearly understood. Always assume that a poor relationship is the basis for project failure.

Distress Indicators – Purpose

Understanding the what and  why actually needs to be done feels like a basic requirement and an abcence of understanding here is one of the major ‘distress indicators’.  Developing an agreed project/programme objective is vital. 

8. Poorly defined scope

Often the difference between project success and failure is often perception, and it may be the case that certain stakeholders have a reason to perceive something as a failure, for their own selfish political reasons. Development of a well defined and agreed project scope, where key stakeholders are fully signed up to success metrics and criteria will go a long way to avoiding wilful misinterpretation. If this is not in place, you need to ask yourself why, and interpret that as a warning sign.

9.  Organisational Politics

Change initiatives are often the result of some form of organisational ‘politicking’. They can typically be a ‘sticking plaster’ response to a problem that really needs major surgery. You might not be in a position to see through this but nonetheless, keep a wary eye out for it.

Change initiatives fail for a number of reasons, but mostly it’s people that fail. They are either the wrong people for the task, the right people doing the wrong things or people just not engaged and bought in. Either way, during a crisis you can avoid failure by keeping a wary eye on the 9 indicators above taking the appropriate avoiding actions.

Post by Pete Wilson

Pete has worked in the technology and business change space for over 30 years. He's worked globally for large public sector and governmental bodies and for large private sector multinationals across numerous industry sectors.

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