Having executed and helped turn around multiple projects under stress, the following are few common themes which I have seen resulting in projects getting into stress. Even though they are common sense and simple things, quiet often they are overlooked by the project team.
Process: Not having a process defined for each aspect of project management like scope, schedule, change, quality etc results in work done in a non coherent manner. Coherency is important when many people are involved to achieve a common goal in a short time like that of a project. I am sure that we all have been part of a team sport at some point in our life and can easily relate to it. Need for a process is much more pronounced when more and more projects are done using distributed virtual teams from various organizations and or from various countries. Having a process defined however unsophisticated (simple process is even better) and making sure that the project team understands it is vital to success of a project.
Project/Task Plan: Often projects not having a project/task plan detailed enough to identify project issues like schedule delays or cost overruns much earlier results in projects getting into stress. I have seen extreme cases where the projects have only the major milestones in their plans and no detailed tasks in it to track progress on a regular basis. If the process defined is to have weekly status reviews, then the project plan should be detailed enough that tasks assigned to the team is less than a week (lesser is preferred) in duration. This will help identify delays much earlier and take action.
People: Most often projects fail or get into stress due to not having the right people in the key roles. For e.g, in one of the teams where I got involved to help improve the delivery, when asked about not having a detailed project plan, the feedback from the project management team was “it is a lot of work” which is not something you expect from someone committed to the profession of project management. Evaluate whether the resources assigned to key roles in the project are interested and committed to the role. People get assigned to roles or take up roles not fully understanding the role in relation to their core interest. Building a trustable team is key for project delivery and one way it can be achieved is by verification.
Communication: As anyone involved in project management know, more than 80 percent of project management is communication. Facilitating and consuming information from various sources like from the project team, stake holders, vendors, project plan, risks and issues etc, understanding its impact on the project, communicating in a timely fashion with the correct level of priority to the right audience and following through is vital for the success of any project. There are so many instances I have seen failure in communication resulting in negative impact to project out come. One simple example being not knowing the vacation plan of key project members and build a backup plan resulting in delays in project delivery.
Estimation: Even though it is a task in a project unlike the others which are broader themes, estimation is one of the major reasons for project failures. Since estimation is what is used to come up project cost and schedule, getting it correct is much important than any. Some of the main reasons I have seen for not having the correct estimation are lack of expertise in the team to come up with proper estimation, not saving the details of similar past projects in the organization to refer to. If these or similar gaps are identified during estimation phase, every possible options to mitigate it like bring in a expert from outside or using data from industry standards or including enough buffer in the estimation should be considered.
I use PC-PEPtalk (Process Communication People Estimation Plan) as a easy way to remember these observations. As always interested in hearing from you.