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A Project Reality Check

~ By Kenneth Darter

Road sign reading Reality Check Ahead

At some point, every project manager needs to ask a few important questions in the middle of a project that will give everyone a reality check on the project's status.

There are some sure signs for project managers that a project needs a reality check. One is rebaselining the project plan with seventy hour work weeks and still having resources over allocated. Another is risk planning taking up more time than project planning. And yet another is when the project manager has lost count how many times the project charter and the requirements have been redefined and scrapped and redefined again.

There are times during any endeavour when a reality check will help everyone on the team stay focused on the important things. There are so many distractions in the day-to-day life of a project; they will keep the project team from meeting its goal. It is important to set aside a time of reflection to make sure that the project is still grounded in reality and has not lost its way through the jungle of execution.

This reality check does not have to consume a lot of time or resources. Depending upon the scope of the project, it can be an informal event designed to help everyone working on the project. This is not the time to point fingers of blame or start reworking the project charter. Rather, it is a time to reflect on what happened and then face forward and determine what needs to happen next. During this reflection, the project manager and team can resolve issues, decide what has been working and what has not, and finally, chart a path to the end of the project, or at least the next major phase.

It is worth bearing in mind that the reality check is not a process that can be checked off and forgotten. Instead it is something that might need to be repeated and refined throughout the project life cycle. There are times when the project may need a formal "lessons learned" document and other times where a working lunch can be used to hash out some problems that have been plaguing the project. However it is conducted, the questions provided below will give the project manager a starting point for giving the project and the project team a reality check.

Question 1: Has The Scope Changed?

The first question is regarding the project scope and the amount of change the scope has gone through. This question is not just about "scope creep" or the normal change encountered through the verification of requirements. The reality check we are looking for here is has the scope or the end result of the project changed completely. For example, the original project called for a software system that would let employees log their time on different work tasks, but now the project team is working on an online application that logs requests from customers and connects these requests to the employee time tracking system. This is no mere scope creep, this is a new project that has hijacked the current project and if it is not stopped, it will suck the life out of the project. There may have been a good reason for the change and there might be a true need for the new scope, but everyone needs to face the reality that the original project does not support that additional work, and something needs to be done about it.

Question 2: Are The Resources Still Committed?

Burnout on projects can be dangerous if there is no mitigation plan for replacing resources without losing time for training and getting new people up to speed. That is why it is important to keep track of whether or not the people working on the project are still committed to the project. While the commitment from the organisation and their managers may exist, it does not mean that everyone still feels like they can do the work and get it done on time. The project manager should know if the general feeling of the is, "Yes, we can do this work, and do it on time," or, "There is no way we will ever finish this project from hell, and I should be looking for a new job." Regardless of how the project manager or the stakeholders feel about the project, if the people actually doing the work are doubtful, then there is a need for change.

Question 3: Can The Project Finish On Time?

If question one was answered with a "yes", or question two was answered with a "no", then there is a very good chance that the answer to question three is, "no." At some point during the project, there should be reflection on whether or not the finish date is still realistic. If it is not, then the project manager and the project team need to reevaluate what is going on and take a recommendation on a new baseline to the stakeholders and decision makers. Performing this reality check will help mitigate any adverse actions stemming from the issues that causes delays in the project.

While there are many other factors that should be taken into account and many other questions to be asked, these three will help the project management and the project team pull their heads out of the work they are doing and get a healthy dose of reality. Once everyone has checked out what is going on, then decisions can be made and everyone can go back to working hard to make the project succeed. Hopefully, they will now have a realistic chance of succeeding in the project.


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