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Why Do Tech Projects Get Out of Control?

It’s a scenario many a CTO knows all too well: A supposedly quick-and-easy tech project gets rolling and it’s all sunny skies and rainbows … at first. But when that deadline rolls around, the project has sometimes become unrecognizable, a bloated version of what it was supposed to be that’s sucking up resources, time and money.

It’s called project escalation, and before your software project spirals out of control, here’s what you need to look out for.

Unclear requirements: You ever help a friend move a couch only to have them change their mind a dozen times about where it should go, wasting your whole day and all your energy? Incomplete or constantly changing requirements for a project can do all that and worse to your team.

Inaccurate estimations: Overly optimistic or pessimistic timelines can completely mess up your resource requirements, lead to missed milestones and create lots of extra makeup work. It’s an inefficient use of everyone’s time and skills that can make the project last way longer than it needed to.

Mission creep: “Hey, while we’re fixing that small part of the fence in the backyard, why not add a vegetable garden? How about a new playground for the kids? And we can finally get that pool we’ve been talking about.” Like many home projects, software projects have a way of accumulating goals that quickly overshadow the original intent, and in software development, the new project goals are often tacked on without additional funds, team members or other resources to accompany them.

Bad communication: If team members, stakeholders and project managers aren’t on the same page about where things are and where they ought to be going, your project is going to have to be redirected in fits and starts, and key details and important features of the project are going to get lost along the way.

Sudden changes: Though every project has to be flexible enough to handle the sudden, unexpected events that happen with every undertaking, if sudden, serious changes are introduced into a project without being managed well, it can throw the whole team off, delay progress and leave everyone in chaos as they try to adjust to the sudden change of direction midway through development.

Not committing enough resources: How often have you decided to save a little money at the beginning of a project (say, skipping out on travel insurance before a trip to a region known for its flight delays) only to have to shell out far more later because you skimped on something you shouldn’t have. (Surprise! You’re out the plane fare and hotel deposit and now you have to plunk down thousands more for a make-up trip to Disneyland.) If you don’t allocate enough people, money or other resources to a project, you may see delays, unexpected overruns, costly corrections and more.

Technical challenges: Technology isn’t always your friend, especially when it comes to compatibility issues, debugging and updates that don’t sit well with the tech you decided on.

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How to Spot When Your Project Is Spiraling Out of Control

When you start seeing these signs, you need to start considering whether your project is spiraling.

Missed milestones: One or two missed milestones is one thing, but if it’s a regular occurrence, you may need to start worrying — especially if they’re key planned events.

Budget overruns: It’s not unusual for costs to go over budget, but if it’s a significant amount, you should take a brutally honest look at what the total projected costs will be in the end.

Unplanned overtime: Are team members working way too much overtime? Are they starting to burn out? Then you need to look at whether or not the resources you’ve committed are really enough, or if the leaders made the right decisions about the architecture in the first place

Frequent scope changes: Does your project keep growing, like from focusing on a local market to world domination, all with the initial budget and timeline? You’ve got a case of mission creep, my friend.

Everyone’s fighting: Tensions grow when communications are poor, people blame each other and goals aren’t shared among team members, stakeholders and managers.

Lots of mistakes: As a project expands and morphs, quality can decline as team members race to keep up with the changing demands.

Escalating technical debt: Putting off permanent solutions to technical problems leads to accumulating what’s called technical debt — the junk drawer full of “stuff we’ll figure out later” that almost inevitably leads to a crisis down the road when the company’s trying to scale up or when the quick fixes start to create more problems than they solved.

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How to Take Control Before It’s Too Late

Don’t despair if you’ve checked some or all of the boxes above and are now officially in charge of a ballooning software project. You can reduce (or even prevent) your project escalation issues with some common-sense moves:

Monitor regularly: With children, baseball and software projects, it’s never too late to start paying attention. Start to continuously monitor progress, keep an eye on milestones and make sure resources are being used wisely. Take note and ask questions when the project starts going off course.

Keep stakeholders engaged: Let the major players know what’s going on and manage expectations. Don’t let major changes catch them off guard. (And watch out for the stakeholders who want to contribute to mission creep, no matter how well-intentioned.)

Keep the lines of communication clear: Make it a priority to keep everyone involved in the know and maintain transparency about what’s going on with the project. Make sure everyone’s on the same page on the team and that everyone’s goals are aligned.

Keep your scope defined: Don’t let mission creep take over the project. Know where the project begins and ends and keep a clear definition of what success will look like. If you have to introduce changes, do it in a structured, transparent way.

Manage your resources as needed: Don’t assume that the budget you earmarked at the beginning of the project will be enough (or need to stay as high) throughout the entire project. Regularly reassess your allocations, shore up weak points and get a sense of whether other areas are strong enough to shift resources away to where they could be more effective at the present time.

Be open to continuous improvement: Foster an atmosphere where everyone’s open to learning how to do things better, take lessons from previous project escalations and use them to prevent the same things from happening in your current project.

Software projects are vulnerable to bloat like any other business venture, but yours needn’t suffer — and can recover if it’s already fallen prey. Clearly communicating what the goals are and what everyone needs to do are the key points in keeping your software projects from spiraling out of control.

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