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Early Warning Signs of a Project in Trouble

By Christopher Scordo (PMP, ITIL) of 

Ever had a favorite football jersey which was starting to come apart after years of wear and tear?  You picked at the seam occasionally; only to find that one day, your jersey has unravelled completely.  This is what it feels like to have a project you are in charge of spin out of control.  Of course, if you had just taken a few minutes to stitch the seam that was coming undone, you’d have been in a much better position (and you’d still have that favorite football jersey).

Project management is much the same.  As a project manager it is your duty to keep an eye on warning signs that your project might be hitting a snag which could result in full on combustion. 

Luckily, there are a few warning signs which are common in project management; and knowing what they are can save you a massive headache down the road.  Below are some early warning signs of your project being in trouble.


Team Members are Working Too Much Overtime

Simply put: when a project is running on schedule, there will be little or no overtime required from team members.  Overtime is a band aid to cover poor scheduling or scope management, and too much team member over time is a tell-tale sign that there are project management issues that need to be addressed.  The impact to team members can also be more negative than expected; late nights of sedentary work, too much junk food to placate appetites, and too much caffeine to keep team members works.  All of these indirect attributes of excessive overtime will result in poor team morale, and high turnover.  Of course, occasional overtime is perfectly fine, especially ahead of critical delivery periods.  But when overtime progresses to multiple hours on a daily basis, it is time to revisit your project schedule and calibrate client expectations to ensure a health project environment. 


Project Goals are Misunderstood by Team and/or Client Stakeholders

Most projects have an overarching business goal, or two, or three.  The problem is that corporate leaders, project managers or even client stakeholders may assume the business goals of a given project are obvious to everyone.  So obvious that nobody ever mentions exactly what they are.  These types of assumptions can lead to a slew of project issues as team members are never quite clear on task priorities or “the big picture”.  Simply assuming that the overall business objectives of a project are obvious to all may lead to dangerous presumptions; and ultimately is a simple communication issue to resolve.


Poor Communication within Your Team

If your team members frequent have personality issues with you or each other, or are just not getting along well, then as the project manager you need to better manage communication.  While it is impossible for everybody to get along magnificently all the time, it is imperative that people put their differences aside and forge a business relationship.  As a project manager, it’s up to you to make sure the business relationship between people who don’t get along on a personal level is put in place, and that communication channels are kept open and flowing.  You might need to call upon the conflict resolution cavalry, but that’s what project managers are there for.  By not addressing let inter-term communication issues at the start, a project can experience massive productivity issues.  This goes for the project manager as well; it is important to understand that you are a team member, and not an emperor.  Condescending communication will lead to similar issues. 


Project Direction is Missing or Inconsistent

If there is no direction from project managers or task leads, and communication channels aren’t kept open, your project might be in a bit of trouble.  When team members are not privy to the overall schedule of a project, or are micro-managed with small finite tasks, it is akin to removing the compass from the crew of a ship.  Nobody but the captain knows where the boat is headed, leading to poor team morale, and a misunderstanding of project priorities.  What’s worse than the absence of direction, though, is contradicting direction.  Constantly flip flopping between stated goals and objectives is a huge, red warning sign; and can indicate poor scope management on behalf of the project manager. 


Corporate Leadership and Project Goals Conflict with Each Other

No matter how on schedule your project is, if there is conflict with the corporate leadership objectives, there could be a pending project disaster.  When corporate leadership decides to shift their business focus away from the needs of your client stakeholder, this is a red flag for your project.  For example, when an IT consulting organization decides it will no longer support a technology your client has invested in; the confidence and trust bestowed in your project leadership may plummet, ultimately leading to a whole slew of issues.   Recognizing the overall goals of your enterprise, and ensuring they align with your project is a simple way to ensure your project is not taken by surprise.  If you do notice a project conflict with regard to corporate communication, address it immediately by communicating directly with corporate management.


Assuming “No News is Good News”

Ever had a client that simply doesn’t return calls, either because they are so overwhelmed or because they simply don’t have the knowledge to provide feedback?  Communication among client stakeholders is absolutely critical to the success of a project, and when you find your client becoming unresponsive, it is easy for project managers to assume “no news is good news”.  This can be a slippery slope, especially as critical decisions are made regarding business objectives and project direction.  One way to counteract this issue without becoming an annoyance is to schedule a weekly status call with your client which can be as brief as five minutes.   Secondly, be sure to send weekly status updates that show exactly what your team is working on, upcoming deadlines, and any action items you require of them.   This type of proactive communication ensures your client remains engaged in a project and decreases the risk associated with an unresponsive client.  By moving along a project path with no input from your client (even if you prod them), you put your project and yourself at extreme risk.


Overall, an effective project manager must strike a balance between communicating effectively, ensuring agreement among stakeholders; and managing the three legged constraints of scope, schedule, and budget.  The warning signs mentioned are meant to be addressed immediately to avoid larger issues down the road.


Christopher Scordo (PMP, ITIL) is a published author and Managing Director of SSI Logic (, owners of the popular PMP training website, PMPerfect.   Visit PMPerfect for the latest on PMP exam prep, live online classes, and self-paced PMP courseware. 


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Comment by Paul Dandurand on October 15, 2012 at 6:23am

Adam, your points are great. Sometimes all looks good or we're looking in the wrong place and as you state, there could be unseen trouble lurking about. I would like to suggest Dr. Harold Kerzner's white paper called Project Health Checks. Like your comments, he suggests not wait for first signs of trouble. He has some good steps on how to conduct a project health check. I have a download link to this white paper available on my blog at The download link is above the video block.

Comment by Chris on September 16, 2012 at 8:14pm

I love your blog post, Adam. 

Great stuff. 

Comment by Adam Russell on September 16, 2012 at 6:00pm

I agree that all of these are good indicators, but I prefer to look at it through a slightly different lens: does the project team have a "Common Mental Model of Success" and is this evidenced in their day-to-day activities and artefacts.  from my perspective it's the #1 indicator for project success (or otherwise).

I've written a bit more about it in my blog as one of the Principles of the "'No A****** Rule' Project Team Charter"******-rule-project-t...

Comment by Shawn Nkosi on September 11, 2012 at 4:57pm

Very informative.

I can relate with all of the signs, now I'll act immediatly.......

Comment by Martin Tejera on September 11, 2012 at 2:07pm

Another warning sign, don't believe or walk the motivational talk.....  I had seen that some times the Project Manager give motivational talk (impresive presentation), but if the PM don't believe or walk that motivational talk, the other members of the team will pick up on it....  "what is the reason to follow this if the PM doesn't live or believe his own words!!!!...."....

Comment by Martin Tejera on September 11, 2012 at 1:48pm

Really good....

Comment by Chris on September 11, 2012 at 12:47pm

Thanks Choudoufu. 

You are correct that this is a typo, it should read: "By not addressing inter-team communication issues at the start, a project can experience massive productivity issues."


Thanks for your feedback!

Comment by Choudoufu C. on September 11, 2012 at 12:43pm

Christopher: Thanks for posting this. In my view, you made your points well, especially the "too much overtime" and "misunderstood goals." 

One of your typos tripped me up, though. When you wrote "by not addressing let inter-term communication issues...," did you mean to write "the" instead of "let," or was there more to this idea that got deleted?

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