How a digital project manager can help you weave through red flags

Want to hear something wild? Most organizations have a 70% project failure rate. Meaning that they failed to produce planned deliverables within budget and on time. You read that number correctly. How is this number so high? So many reasons, but one of the largest is ignoring red flags as they pop up.

I am just finishing up a year-long program with Louder Than Ten, a Digital Project Management training program. One of the things I've learned is how to quickly identify red flags, which can indicate risks to the project.

Talking about the elephant in the room is awkward and uncomfortable, but when the project is at risk, it really needs to happen. If you leave things unchecked, they can spiral out of control. Let’s look into what red flags are, what we can do when we see one, and how we can work to mitigate them in the future.

In this article, I’ll be referencing project stakeholders a fair bit. A stakeholder in this instance, is anyone who has some skin in the game, and can directly, indirectly impact or be impacted from its direction. This means me, you, my boss, your boss, your bosses boss, and even the end-users can be stakeholders.

What is a digital project 'Red Flag'?

A red flag is an indicator that there may be something lurking below the surface of a project. There are different types and sizes of red flags which will all affect our project’s timeline, budget or scope differently. Understanding what these red flags look like is important for all stakeholders involved in the direction of the project.

Here’s a list of red flags that could pop up on a digital project, and remember that a red flag can be on either side of a project. We’re not pointing fingers! Take a look and see if any of these sound familiar:

  • Late feedback/late deliverable
  • Scope creep
  • Someone gets sick
  • Too many stakeholders
  • Using a new technology
  • A solar flare wipes out all electronic signals and email stops working
  • Stakeholders have limited availability for meetings
  • No access to the top stakeholder
  • Mystery Voices (new stakeholder pops up before launch and derails the project with new requirements)
  • Poorly communicated feedback (“I don’t like it” - what is ‘it’?)
  • A global health scare (this is happening right now! Entire factories are shutting down to keep employees safe)
  • The ‘Swoop & Poop’ (someone swings by your desk and decides to give their 2 cents, trouble is that it’s your boss)
  • Late content
  • Solutioning before identifying the problem
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Misalignment on goals

If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball

It is all about preparation. A Digital Project Manager should prepare stakeholders for the worst by creating a safe environment (on both sides of the project) to talk about the stinky fish in the lunchroom.

A wise person named Rachel Gertz once asked me, “What is the first thing they do when you board an airplane and everyone is seated?”. Well, they tell you about all of the possible things that could go wrong, and how to deal with them. Does it stop you from flying? No. Does it mean that those things are going to happen? No. Does everyone who has flown at least once, know where the oxygen masks are, or where the emergency exits on an aircraft are? Yes! (at least they all should).

We need to do the same thing at the start of our projects. By talking about the issues that may happen, we’ll all be on the same page on how to handle them if they do happen. This will minimize any negative impact on the project.

Okay, so we see a red flag, now what?

The first thing we need to do is stop and address it. Let's start talking about it right away to minimize the effects it could have. Here are a few examples from the list and how we typically work through them.

  • Scope creep - shifting project goals is okay, things change, but it may add more time or cost to a project. We would bring it up and have a conversation about where we’re going from here.
  • Too many stakeholders - we’ll have to add some buffer time to the schedule if things need to constantly go up and down the chain.
  • Mystery Voices and the ‘Swoop & Poop’ - these new voices may have valuable things to add to the project, they may not, in either case, we would have to look at the impact to the project and if the timeline, scope or budget would need to be adjusted to account for the additional requests or changes.
  • Poorly communicated feedback (“I don’t like it” - what is ‘it’?) - we would give a friendly reminder of the proper format to provide feedback in ;)
  • Late content - It happens, is there a portion of it we can start working with so the timeline isn’t affected?
  • Providing solutions before identifying the problem - Lets focus on getting to the root cause of your problem, then let’s bring in the experts to solve the problem!
  • Misalignment on goals - Why don’t we pause what we’re doing and have a realignment session. That way we’re all rowing in the same direction.

When the overarching objective of a digital project manager is to see valuable ROI from the project for our clients, the primary concern will always be project health. We want to make sure that we’re working to get those planned deliverables complete on time and on budget. By doing the uncomfortable job of noticing and bringing attention to red flags, we are putting the project health at the top of the priority list.

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