Getting so close to the witching hour it seems appropriate to talk about something scary. Very scary. For us project managers, that means that our project suddenly seems to be careening out of control (think: everyone associated with it running out of a cave followed by a flock (flock?) of bats).


When I get that feeling, my first instinct is a knee-jerk reaction: fix it, fix it now. If I let that feeling take over, I'd end up snapping orders and doing a whole lot of other peoples' work myself. Fortunately I'm old and have been through this so many times that I don't follow that instinct any more (not that it doesn't kick in - I just try to ignore it). So what's the alternative?


First, take stock. Why does it feel like the project is out of control? Sometimes there are real trouble indicators, sometimes there's just too much happening, and sometimes is just a bad day so it's important to figure out whether there really is an underlying issue or whether there are just some minor course corrections to be made. Understanding what's causing the problem is also the first step in regaining control. Some of the most common reasons a project feels out of control:

  • Feature creep has reached a level where it's seriously affecting the project. Even with agile project management there is usually some level of expectation about when a package of work will be done. Some stakeholders seem to keep adding features or tasks just because they're afraid to put out a product that's not 'done'; sometimes as a project gets more complete there are too many eyes on it and not enough critical thinking about prioritization.
  • Deadlines are being missed. User stories scheduled in an iteration suddenly slip out at the last minute, beta programs have to slide out because functionality is missing, builds take too long. With agile the deadlines in general have to do with iterations, but if you have folks waiting for a product you might start to miss marketing windows, etc.
  • Information is missing. You're at a standstill on a task, user story or multiple tasks/user stories because you aren't getting the answers you need, your backlog is empty or unprioritized, you're not getting real information in your daily stand-ups or other status meetings - anywhere that seems opaque is going to make you feel like the project is slipping away.
  • You don't have the resources to do the job. You could be missing people - illness, unscheduled vacations, lottery winnings, departures, needing physical resources like machines or raw materials, waiting for licenses of some sort, or running low on funding. Sometimes it's just temporary so you need to reset expectations, sometimes it's permanent so you'll need to rescope.
  • The quality of deliveries out of the project is not up to snuff. For software projects, you could be getting a significant number of bugs being reported or have difficulty building the code. For other types of projects you might be seeing cosmetic errors or underlying structural errors that shouldn't be happening. And the worst - your customer could be seeing these before you do.
  • You're in a bad mood. Seriously. We all have bad days where everything seems to be off-kilter. It's OK that this happens, but you need to figure it out before you spring into action and cause a real problem.

So now you've figured out why the project seems to be out of control.That's still not enough information to move forward.Once you have the root cause of your unease, assuming that there's a real underlying issue, create a risk assessment.Be sure you understand just how much of a problem you have.If you are seeing multiple issues assess the risk for issue and then estimate the overall project risk.


Once you understand the risks you can put together a risk mitigation plan or a contingency plan (risk mitigation if there's a way to make the risk less likely or reduce the impact, contingency plan for what to do if the risk is realized with full impact). When you understand both the risk and the cost of mitigation and/or contingency actions you can decide how to proceed. Is the risk high enough to put the mitigation and/or contingency plan into effect? If it isn't then you're done. You should feel better - your project isn't out of control and you're in a good position to act if the risks increase. If the risk is high enough to put the mitigation/contingency plans into action then notify the team and the stakeholders (make your risk assessment and planning available to them) and put the plan into action.


Think of the checklist as a zombie apocalypse survival guide - if it happens you're as prepared as you can be.


Want it by the numbers?  Check out the short list in our By the Numbers Blog!



Happy Halloween!