4 Signs to Pull Over and Stop a Project

Have you ever seen the award-winning movie Rush? In it, Austrian Niki Lauda, Formula One World Champion racing driver, lectured fellow competitor from England, James Hunt, on risk management. Mr. Lauda states that he manages to a risk factor of 20 percent; any conditions that produced risk over this factor could lead to a deadly accident. At the last race of the season, Mr. Lauda pulls over in a rainstorm as he feels there is too much risk. While this action hands the top prize to Mr. Hunt, Mr. Lauda is unrepentant in his action to pull off the road. He goes on to win more racing world championships than Mr. Hunt.
Projects are like racecars -- both are complicated and exist in environments where there are many moving parts. That's why, as with a race, knowing when to put the brakes on a project will be best in the long-run. Here are four warning signs that you need to pull over:
  1. Accumulated issues with no path to resolution. It is common that during the course of a project, we capture and determine a path to resolution for issues. This path can sometimes involve an escalation to a higher level of leadership. However, if the project has incurred multiple issues where a path to resolution cannot be determined, it has reached a point where these issues will impair both current and upcoming project activities.  
  2. Unstaffed key or multiple roles. We're all challenged to find the right level and skill fit of resources for our project teams in a timely manner. For some specialized skills, it may take weeks to find the right kind of resource, which is why many project managers now build staffing lead time into their project plans. But when a project has either key or multiple roles unfilled, typically three to four weeks beyond their planned staffing date, it will start to cause a drag on the project. This drag occurs from tasks that are due to start with no resources available to do the work. 
  3. Lack of sponsorship. I have experienced unplanned exits of project sponsors for a variety of different reasons. I have also experienced project sponsors that are not willing to sponsor anything about a project. In both of these cases, you need to find a new project sponsor, fast. Without a sponsor, a project will not have the key decision-maker needed to guide its long-term course. While the typical remedy is just to keep working on the project, an unfilled sponsor role is setting your project up for a lack of attention and visibility within an organization -- and ultimate failure.
  4. Unclear or fluctuating success criteria. A project must have a clearly understood set of success criteria. However, changes in project sponsorship, business conditions and other internal/external factors can sometimes cause major changes in the success factors of a project. If any of the success criteria change, it is a good time to pause the project. Based on the new success criteria, work with the project leadership team to re-plan the activities, schedule, resources and budget for the project.
We are typically judged by the amount of progress we make as well as the outcomes from our projects. But we should also be judged on our ability to cease projects when the level of risk is too high. Although it might seem like a sign of weakness, stopping and re-directing a project incurring too much risk can reduce the potential overall cost and preserve its value proposition.
Under what conditions have you had to stop a project due to too much risk?
This post was originally published in PMI's Voices on Project Management blog

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The Power of Happiness

People talk about motivation, work-life balance and developing a productive team. But only a few realize the importance of happiness within this equation. 
Look no further than the recent cricket matches between England and Australia for a very interesting case study of the effect of leadership and morale on sustained team performance.
I'm not going to explain cricket other than to highlight that it's a team game and that each test match takes up to five days, with six hours of playing time each day. It requires sustained concentration, and outcomes are significantly influenced by the collective expectations and attitude within the team. Unlike many sports, a single star cannot make a huge difference without support from his teammates and the playing time resembles that of a normal workweek.
In parts of what was once the British Empire, the game of cricket reigns supreme. One of the sport's major contests is the series of five matches between English and Australian teams every couple of years for "The Ashes." The outcome of each of the five series is of significant national importance -- defeating the "old enemy" makes headline news in both countries. 
Unusually, in the last nine months, there have been two series played: the first in mid-2013 and the second in the current Australian summer. England won the first series 3-0. And after losses in India and England, the Australian team was written off as "the worst ever" by the local press. But then Australia won the second series 5-0, a feat only accomplished twice before in Ashes history, and now they're national heroes. What caused the change?
The difference wasn't in the skills of the players or the support staff (they were basically the same). It was the team's attitude. Prior to the start of the English series, Australia focused on peak performance at all costs. There were rules, curfews and strictly enforced discipline, which led to dissent, internal divisions and disenchantment. 
The Australian Cricket Board decided a change was needed and appointed Daren "Boof" Lehmann as the new team coach just 16 days before the first English test. The change was too late to make much of a difference in the England series, but by the time the Australian series started, Mr. Lehmann's philosophy had made a fundamental -- and enduring  -- change in the Australian team culture. 
With Mr. Lehmann at the helm, every team member is committed to team excellence. And rather than training drills for the sake of drills to drive performance, players want to improve and develop. The drive is intrinsic, not extrinsic. The most often repeated comment among team members is, "Lehmann made it fun again!"
The Australian team members are happy, taking genuine delight in each other's successes as well as providing support and encouragement when things don't go as planned. 
This transformation will undoubtedly be the subject of research in years to come, but my initial impressions of the key skills Mr. Lehmann has used are:
  • Respecting and trusting his players -- garnering responsible behaviors in return
  • Allowing time for life beyond cricket, resulting in a fresh enthusiasm for both the training regime and the game
  • Setting high expectations, but using a supportive style to encourage striving for excellence rather than demanding excellence 
Applying these techniques takes courage (especially under the glare of national publicity). Building a champion team that enjoys its work and challenges is the challenge for any leader, particularly if you want your team to help you push your project through to a successful conclusion. 
How do you make your team's work fun when you need high performance?
Lynda Bourne, DPM, PMP

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