Unsticking a project

Posted by Heather Villa, CMA, MBA, MSM on July 17, 2009 in: Project Management, Time Management Strategies

It doesn’t matter what size of company you are or what size of project you’re working on, most of us have faced this situation at one time or another: We have a project that is going well and then it sputters and stalls. Days turn into weeks and the project lags. There are plenty of reasons that this could happen. Here are a few top reasons and what to do about them.

Delegation that has fallen through the cracks: If you’re relying on something from someone else, and they’re not delivering, you need to get things moving by nudging them, then pushing them, then threatening them (in that order). If possible, continue on with other aspects of the project. At some point, you may need to replace them and that’s something you should start working on between the “push them” and “threaten them” stage.

Lack of clarity: This is a bigger issue than most people realize and it is often the unknown reason for project slowdown. It happens when you’ve divided up tasks and are performing one task after another and then you hit a wall and can’t quite seem to start or finish the next task in the list. I’ve found that the reason is actually quite simple: The next task in the list is poorly defined or much larger and more unwieldy than the other tasks. So you can often “unstick” your project by breaking that task down into smaller parts.

Procrastination: Procrastination happens because there’s often something we’d rather be doing. It’s human nature. Sometimes it’s because that other task is more enjoyable, but often it’s because we don’t want to work on the task at hand. The best thing to do is just to delegate it. This isn’t always possible, but it’s the best scenario. Get someone else to do it and when they do, you’ll probably find that it unlocks the project’s momentum. If you can’t delegate that task, try delegating a portion of it. Or, ask for help.

No deadline: This is another one of those critical but not-easily-recognized problems. Humans need deadlines. We don’t like them, we fight them, we push the deadline limits, but we NEED to have that due date. Sometimes in projects we’ll have due dates for larger objectives and, of course, for the end goal, but we don’t have deadlines for the smaller tasks. Ironically, it’s these smaller tasks which get pushed back and pushed back (because of a lack of deadlines!) and they build up to risk the project’s timely completion. So, set deadlines for everything.

Lack of definitions: In a way this is related to the “lack of clarity” above, but it is a broader-based problem. Lack of clarity is tied to specific tasks while lack of definition is tied to the project as a whole. Areas where I’ve seen a lack of definition stall a project: The outcome wasn’t clearly defined, the alignment between this project and the company’s goals weren’t clearly aligned, there wasn’t a well-defined leadership and reporting structure in the project, or, there weren’t well-defined benefits to keep the budget from being given to someone else. To resolve this, get definitions! It might be too late (it should be done as early as possible in the project) but if a project is recently stalled, you might still have time to more clearly define the project to get it moving again.

Of course there are plenty of other reasons that projects might get stuck but I’ve found that these five are among the biggest. You’ll do well to mitigate these risks before they happen but if you ever find yourself in a situation where a project is already stuck, start here.

Good Luck!

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