28 August 2009

Dealing With a Project That is Not Meeting Deadlines

In a recent post I outlined eight signs that are leading indicators for a project that can be expected not to reach its goals and targets in a timely manner. This post will highlight how best to deal with the seventh of these signs, a project that is not meeting deadlines.

Why is this a problem? In my discussions with executives across the world, the first complaint that they usually give about internal project teams is that they do not deliver the end-results of the project on time. You can be pretty sure that a project that is not meeting interim deadlines is highly likely not to meet the final deadlines as well (independent of what your project manager tells you).

In addition to this, I find that delays to intermediate deadlines are very often a sign of other potential issues. Typically, the delays are caused by the team not being able to make sufficient time available for the project, the team spending too much on the wrong activities (such as data gathering or interviews), or the team being very uncomfortable with the basic premises of the project (background, goals, expected deliverables, etc).

What can you as a project sponsor do if one of the project teams that you are responsible for is missing intermediate deadlines? My key message is not to let it slide, as it is very unlikely that the problem will go away by itself. The first action you need to take is to sit with the team and demand a fairly detailed explanation of why deadlines that have been agreed in their project plan have been missed (this assumes that the team has had input to the plan and has accepted the key deadlines in this plan). In this discussion, you should be prepared to dig beyond the standard answers to uncover the true reasons for the delays. A standard answer you will hear is that the team has not had sufficient time to carry out the activities. This is almost always true, but should have been known to the team when they agreed to the project plan. You therefore need to push the responsibility for sticking to the plan firmly back to the team.

However, I do also see situations where the project team's opportunity to allocate time to the project has decreased due to changes in priorities within the organization. If you are facing this situation, you will need to be prepared to act. You will need to understand what these new issues are and why they require time from members of your project. You will need to discuss alternatives with the other executives claiming time from your team members. If it is not possible to solve the issues related to the available time, you will need to develop (together with the team) alternative plans. This can involve reducing the scope of the project, delaying key milestones, or adding resources. Each of these solutions has its own pros and cons and needs to be analyzed in the specific context of the project and the organization.

However, in my experience, the most usual reason for a team not meeting deadlines is that the delays are caused by the project team spending too much time on certain activities (i.e. data collection, analytics, etc). If this is the case, you as the sponsor must be prepared to dig deep for the real reasons for this. You will also need to hammer home the need to stick to deadlines. You should also communicate that 100% knowledge is impossible, and that you trust the team to come up with good conclusions and recommendations in the time that they have been given (and have agreed). In this case, you will also need to help the team prioritize its activities going forward in order to get back on plan. My final recommendation is to keep a close eye on the team going forward. This is based on my experience that once a team has shown an inclination not to meet deadlines, it is likely to do so again.

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