We’ve all worked on those projects. You know the ones. They start with a glorious vision: Sun’s out, top’s down, tunes are cranked and we’re cruising down the highway to implementation. And then there’s a revenue shortfall, or a revolt by some neglected stakeholder or the next new thing or whatever. The cause doesn’t matter so much as the fact that the project seems stuck, spinning its wheels, going no where.

Before you call the tow truck

You’ve suddenly realized your project is stuck. All those meetings, all those status reports, all the team members are saying the same things they’ve been saying for the last several months but nothing is really happening. There are a number of questions to ask and positions to consider that might put some solid ground beneath your wheels.

Which way are the wheels pointing? – If the tires are up in the air spinning lazily, you might want to dust off your hands and walk away, grateful that you can walk at all. Projects get this way for a variety of reasons. Sometimes larger company issues change everybody’s priorities and you have to abandon your projects for more urgent company matters. Sometimes the technology just doesn’t support the end objectives. Sometimes you lose a key staff member and can’t replace them. For whatever reason, once a project’s really off track, it’s useful to consider whether the total cost (corrections plus completion costs) is still justified by the perceived benefit. It’s not fun to walk away from a wreck, but it’s less fun to try and drive home a project that’s fatally damaged.

Who turned; you or the road? – There are many ways to end up in the ditch. Probably the easiest is to keep going straight when the road turns or turn when the road keeps going straight. Assuming the wheels are pointing down, it’s important to distinguish between these two causes. If the business climate changed and your project didn’t, doing the same old things with more intensity will only get you deeper into the ditch. On the other hand, if the basic business directions for the project are still sound, more attention to execution basics such as milestones, assessments and communication may be enough to get you back on the road.

Were you run off the road? – Some projects end up in the ditch through no fault of their own. Requirements are well defined. All the stakeholders are identified. Implementation gathers momentum and everybody is excited about the new initiative, wants to climb aboard and wants to add just one more bit of functionality. Pretty soon with all hands grabbing at the wheel – yep, you guessed it – you’ve landed in the ditch. Without top-notch scope and change management, it’s easy to get lost one step at a time. Using a release or version approach to defer some or all of the wish list will provide some traction to get back on the road again.
Other ditch-related questions

Without going into too much detail there are some other questions worth asking. Is this a ditch or just a crossover to a better road? It’s amazing what we discover if we look beyond what we expect to see. Was that smooth road just a dream, a group hallucination? That doesn’t mean the project isn’t worth doing. It just may require a swamp buggy as opposed to a car. Did I think I was driving a sports car when really I was driving a bus? Big projects will handle differently than smaller ones. Knowing the difference is crucial to keeping it between the lines.
Staying out of the ditch

Given the complexity of our organizations, our businesses and our technology, it may not be possible to never visit a ditch. However, good project management, strong communication across the organization and a culture committed to learning from mistakes, as opposed to punishing them, are all good starting points. Points good for staying out of the ditch and getting out of it once you’re there. And though you’d never tell your kid with a new license this, if your projects never end up a little off track, you and your project teams may not be taking enough chances.

Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and project management consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be contacted via the email at blglick@charter.net or via telephone at 608/345-3958.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.