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risk management: interview with Annette Vendelbo

PMI Denmark Chapters, shares her expertise regarding how to identify high-risk projects, common causes of failure and, most importantly, practical steps for project turnaround when things do go wrong.
As a sponsor of the summit “Nordic Project Zone” Can Do is happy to present the interview with Annette Vendelbo.

Nordic Project Zone (NPZ): Why do so many projects struggle to deliver the expected value?
Annette Vendelbo: There is more than one answer to that question. Here are a few things that in my experience make projects struggle:

  • The organizational maturity in many companies is still quite low. This means that project knowledge lives only in the project department, while project understanding is somewhat low in both the management layer and the IT department, which often delivers project resources. This often results in decision bottlenecks and resource constraints and ultimately in project time and budget overruns.
  • Poor stakeholder and communication management results in poorly managed expectations. This means that even if you have delivered your project exactly according to the requirements specifications, the perceived value is not as expected. It is vital that you as a project manager set correct expectations as to what the project will deliver, and what it will not deliver. This will ensure that stakeholders will not be disappointed with the final project results
  • Last but not least, the lack of sufficient project management training results in poor project performance. The project management profession is indeed a profession that you can only be successful in if you have the right competency mix between hard and soft skills. In many cases projects managers in charge of a large budgets have not received formal education in either hard or soft skills, and very often not in the organization’s project model either. Therefore, their chances of success are quite poor. The project managers are most likely doing their best, but if you don’t know what you don’t know, the risk of failing is very big. More PM education in both soft and hard skills and management awareness about the fact that project management is a complex profession and that projects – particularly IT projects – are complex of nature would surely increase the chance of project success.

NPZ: What are some obvious signs that a project is going off track?
Annette Vendelbo: There are quite a few signs that could tell you that the project is off track, for example:

  • If tasks remain at 80-90% complete over a longer period, this is a sign that something is wrong.
  • If milestones are delayed but project scope remains the same while the last deadline is not moved, something is definitely wrong. This very often means that you are forced to cut down test activities, which in most, if not all, cases will result in poor quality and in end-users being your de-facto testers.
  • Frequent escalations to steering committee level and frequent change orders are bad signs and could indicate that the project is going off track. It indicates a poor cooperation climate and changing requirements.

NPZ: Why do PMs fail to see these signs and what are some simple steps to ensure swift project recovery?
Annette Vendelbo: I do believe that it is a business management responsibility to ensure that the project manager allocated to a high-risk project has the right competencies and skills to carry out the project. In many companies there is an unfortunate tendency to believe that all project managers are alike, and that project management is just the application of common sense. But whose common sense? Furthermore, most companies have a company project methodology, but this fact does not ensure project success in itself.  The organization must understand their role and  responsibilities in the company’s projects, and training in the project methodology must take place regularly.

When project managers miss the signs it may be because:

  • They do not know what to look for.
  • Lack of project management training and relevant experience.
  • They have, in fact, seen the signs, but the management of the organization insist that the project must be carried out and do not want to hear the warnings.

NPZ: What are some simple steps for Project Managers to ensure swift project recovery when its required?
Annette Vendelbo: 
Depending on the situation, project recovery may not be simple at all. But in my experience these steps have worked when I have been asked to take over a struggling project:

  • Analyse the situation and find out the project’s true status in terms of project progress, the financial situation, resources etc.
  • Get everything – good and bad – on the table and analyse the options based on facts.
  • Communicate the options to the steering committee/project sponsor and give them your recommendations.
  • After a steering committee decision, adjust your plans to reflect the new approach, new economy, new situation etc.
  • Communicate to relevant stakeholders and particularly your team. It is vital that you get new positive energy into the project.
  • Be clear on your expectations of everyone delivering to project results, and follow up often on performance.
  • Increase follow-up frequency with your team, e.g. once or twice a day, until the project is completely back on track.

NPZ: Who is responsible for identifying that a project is off-track?
Annette Vendelbo: It is a joint responsibility. If the project manager does not see the signs, the steering committee should certainly ask probing questions if the promised progress does not materialize, if there is financial overrun etc. Especially project team members should raise a flag if they sense that something seems to be wrong.

NPZ: Who should be involved in the turnaround?
Annette Vendelbo: Again this is a joint effort that everyone in the project team, the PM, and the steering committee should be involved in, but each with their unique set of responsibilities. The tendency to only point to the PM in project related matters is not effective and will not generate the wanted results.

See Annette present on Incorporating Agile with Traditional Methods at Nordic Project Zone 25-27 November 2013 Radisson Blu Scandinavia, Copenhagen