Seven Questions to Ask When Dealing with a Troubled Project


I am frequently being asked the following question in my consulting and training and training engagements:

We have a troubled project at our organization. What is the starting point when dealing with such ventures? What questions do we have to seek the answers for in order to rectify the situation?

Question #1: Why is this project failing?

In my opinion this is the most important question to ask. Before we move further in his analysis of the failed or troubled project we need to establish whether the failure should be attributed to the project portfolio management or project management root causes.

If we establish that - even if finished on-time and on-budget - the project would most likely not add any value to the organization (domain of portfolio management), why should we waste time and resources on putting it back on the rails? In other words, if determined that the project was a bad idea to begin with (e.g. construction of a new airport that no airline intended to use )we should probably either cancel it outright or go back to the drawing board and, if possible, change the design of the final product.

Question #2: Where did we fail on the project portfolio management side of things?

If we managed to establish that the failure was on the project portfolio management end of the spectrum, then the next step should be dedicated to find out where exactly our shortcomings were. Depending on the type of the organization the answers to this question could vary quite considerably.

For example, we may discover that the project did not fit any of the company's strategies, was not feasible financially or not attractive enough from the market standpoint. In addition we may discover that the organization did not possess enough in-house knowledge to implement the project or did not assign enough resources to it at all.

Question #3: Where did we fail on the project management aspects?

If after analyzing the responses to Q1 and Q2 we discover that everything is fine from the project portfolio management perspective, then we can focus on the potential project management weaknesses. In other words we agreed that the project has been a good idea overall, but the delivery failed.

Question #4: Are we failing with scope?

Some of the questions you may ask here:

  • Did we bother to gather, analyze and document the requirements?
  • Who did the requirements  gathering?
  • Was it a "technical specialist" or a person specifically trained to do that?
  • Where is the documentation?
  • Are all requirements written at a consistent and appropriate level of detail?
  • Do the requirements provide an adequate basis for design?
  • Do we have priorities assigned to each requirement?
  • Is there any information missing in the specs? Are there any TBDs?
  • Did we cover all possible alternatives and exceptions?
  • Does the requirement document contain any ambiguous words?
  • Did we conduct walkthroughs, inspections and peer reviews?

Question #5: Are we failing with timing and/or budget?

You can probe around the timing and budget misfires by asking the following questions:

  • Who created the estimates?
  • Was it a qualified party (e.g. project manager) or has the estimate arrived from the top?
  • Were the estimates based on requirements/design?
  • Did you consider sick and vacation days?
  • Did you include “project overhead” such as:
    • Project management
    • Project meetings
    • Documentation
    • User acceptance/Scope verification
  • Was someone (i.e. project manager) watching the overall schedule?
  • Did the team participate in creation of the schedule?
  • Was there a discussion of each estimate?
  • Was there any pressure applied to the team?
  • Did the project manager bother to negotiate with the project stakeholders?

Question #6: Are we failing with quality?

  • Did we even bother to elicit, analyze and compile the requirements?
  • Do we have enough technical expertise to deliver this product?
  • Is the poor quality the direct result of short time and budget?
  • Were we expected to address a lot of the technical debt issues from the previous releases?

Question #7: Are we failing because of the effort?

  • Were we given enough people to accomplish this project?
  • Were we given enough experienced specialists?

P.S. The next article to be published next week will shed some light on what actions can be taken depending on the answers to the above questions.

About the Author

Jamal Moustafaev, MBA, PMP – president and founder of Thinktank Consulting is an internationally acclaimed expert and speaker in the areas of project/portfolio management, scope definition, process improvement and corporate training. Jamal Moustafaev has done work for private-sector companies and government organizations in Canada, US, Asia, Europe and Middle East.  Read Jamal’s Blog @

Jamal is an author of two very popular books: Delivering Exceptional Project Results: A Practical Guide to Project Selection, Scoping, Estimation and Management and Project Scope Management: A Practical Guide to Requirements for Engineering, Product, Construction, IT and Enterprise Projects.