Signs That Your Project Is Headed to Status “In Trouble” – The Practical Project Manager

The Practical Project Manager

The place to look for practical solutions to help in the journey of project management

Signs That Your Project Is Headed to Status “In Trouble”

In the course of managing projects, you are bound to come across a project that has been declared “In Trouble”. Sometimes, you can be working on a project that started “On Plan” and somewhere along the way, its status quickly changes to “In Trouble”.

Here are some phrases that indicate you could be heading to some trouble.


This can also come as “Uuuum” or “I don’t know”.

If during the project, your project team begins to respond to you using such phrases several times within a short time span, this is a clue that you and your team are not on the same page. It also may indicate that the team member is disengaged for one reason or another.

What’s worse is when you hear your project team member explain their tasks or something critical and that is the first time you are hearing of it. When you sit with your team, and you seem to be getting surprises, this is an issue with communication.

Remedy: Plan several sessions with the teams to discuss status of their tasks, circulate the action plans and follow-up. Ensure that you and your team are on the same page. Also, be the team leader. Listen to suggestions and make decisions. Lead the team.

“I think we need to re look at the whole project”

This can also come as “What are we trying to achieve here?”

This is particularly scary when this phrase comes up in later stages of the project. And what’s worse, when your project sponsor makes this comment.

This is usually a sign of poor stakeholder engagement. The right people were not involved during the key phases of the project.

Remedy: Build a stakeholder register and include it in the project charter. Get the charter signed off by the business sponsor and also key business owners involved in the project. It also helps to have reviews and sign offs at the end of each phase. For example, signed off requirements after Requirement Definition Phase, User Acceptance Testing sign offs after User Acceptance Testing.

“We are so way off schedule. We need to baseline the project and develop a new schedule”

This happens when there is such a significant delay that the whole schedule needs to be re looked at.

As project managers, our goal is to manage a project within the three constraints: scope, time and budget. So when you are told that we are way off schedule, it is very understandable for the project manager to feel that they have failed. Sometimes, these things happen for the good. It makes things clear and decisions can be made on whether to move forward with the project or not.

If your project is in this state, step back and review the facts of the project. What caused the delays?

Did you lose a key resource? Did you underestimate the effort required to achieve a specific task? Did you make an assumption that turned out not to be true? Did a risk that you had identified, or hadn’t identified, become a reality? Was there a significant shift in the environment or organization that has created a blocker?

Remedy: Once you have identified the causes, you need to sit with the project team and stakeholders and develop an action plan to address these issues. You also need to make a plan as to how not to get into this situation again. Each of the action items must be monitored closely. Review the plan with the teams and report on it daily at first. Once the plan seems to be yielding the results, you may reduce the frequency of the review sessions to weekly.

This also applies to when there is a budget overrun.

Have you handled a project whose status became “In Trouble”? How did you recover?

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Photo courtesy of Canardo (Flickr)
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