Live Blog: Reading the Tea Leaves—Predicting a Project’s Future, Payson Hall, Agile Development/Better Software Conference East 2013

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We all know that some projects are destined to fail. Once a project gets the A-OK to get started, it’s up to the stars and fate to determine its future. Right? Well, not really.

As Payson Hall’s illuminating keynote session, “Reading the Tea Leaves: Predicting a Project’s Future,” detailed, there are several techniques one can use to get a handle on how a project is going. A project doesn't just fall apart due to unforeseen circumstances; in fact, there’s plenty of data available to help you see if your project is either doomed or on its way to success—you just need to know how to gather and interpret it.

Besides being an expert on all things project management-related, Payson is also an amateur magician. However, just because he practices the art of illusion doesn’t mean he believes in the supernatural. Payson said he likes to take a scientific approach in the way he goes about gathering details of projects to make accurate predictions.

Payson described several instances over his career in which he needed to dive into the status reports of failed projects to trace where exactly the projects went sour. Over the course of researching the thousands of pages of documents detailing a project’s beginning to its end, he said one should be able to ascertain problem areas hidden in the details that people tend to overlook.

To understand how a project fails, you need to first know what exactly a project is. Payson describes it as “a temporary effort undertaken to accomplish a defined goal (scope) within specified resource and schedule constraints.” In this definition, resources stand for people, funding, and equipment and scope accounts for quality, quantity, breadth, and depth.

Payson went on to detail three key interrelated parts of a project and the questions one needs to answer to ensure it is headed in the right direction.

From Payson’s slides:

  • Definition: What do you want? When? What resources will you commit to get it done?
  • Planning: What will happen? When? Who will do it? What will it cost? What are the risks?
  • Execution: What happened? When? What resources did it requite? How does that compare to expectations? Are we on track to make it? Should we continue?

In an example of a failed project that missed its originally planned launch date, Payson was able to trace the project’s problems through understanding how each one of these three key parts was affected by the others. In this case, a project team did insufficient planning, which led to surprises, which caused lost productivity and quality issues, which led to unexpected work, thus resulting in schedule problems. At the root of this failure was the insufficient planning that occurred at the project’s inception. For Payson, the first month of a project is just as important as the final months, as it’s difficult to recover from a sloppy or late start. One always needs to begin a project with a sense of urgency.

You need to look at a project’s data and determine patterns that can help you figure out what went wrong. One way to help you do so is by using a slip chart, which this handy consulting website defines as “a chart of a product's schedule slips, connecting points made by the pair of a ship date and the date it was announced.”

You can also use other such tools as a diagnostic tool organizational chart, which can help you track the symptoms of a project’s failure and brainstorm some possible diagnostic questions. From these questions, you can determine the possible causes of failure and potential remedies.

All in all, Payson stressed the importance of being a good project detective. First, you need to realize that a project is multi-dimensional (schedule, scope, and resources), and from there you can begin to gather data to spot possible trends and patterns. This is a decidedly scientific way to predict a project’s future and avoid catastrophes.