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We often hear project managers and other stakeholders say, “I should have seen that as a red flag.” More often than not, some red flags repeat in many projects, regardless of the project type, industry, complexity, or size; however, in larger and more complex projects, some of these red flags are more likely to increase the severity of downstream risks.

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Noticing and addressing the red flags quickly will decrease your risks. Keeping an eye out for these four issues may not prevent every potential problem, but it can significantly increase the chances of successfully executing the project.

1. Poorly defined objectives

Poorly defined objectives can pose one of the most severe risks to any project, no matter the project size or complexity. During the project planning phase, a vital step is to identify all of the objectives. If the primary objectives are not clearly defined, the project is likely to end in failure. Project managers must be able to clearly identify each objective and explain how it links back to larger company-wide goals.

Without being able to identify and communicate high-level project objectives—the who, when, and why around each objective—confusion will plague stakeholders and dominate the project. It is essential that sufficient time is allocated to clearly identify and confirm project objectives before moving on to set and assign tasks to team members.

2. Unrealistic timelines or budgets

Unfortunately, too many projects are still executed with inaccurate timelines and unrealistic budgets. These issues can be properly addressed by allowing sufficient time during the planning stage to properly analyze requirements, resourcing, and cost estimates. It is also necessary to build in realistic buffers or contingencies to avoid unnecessary surprises. It is important to note that projects that span beyond a year have an increased chance of more unknown factors, increased costs, and ultimately more risk.

3. A shortage of qualified and dedicated team members

Not having the right team members assigned to each project can pose a significant risk to the final deliverables and scope in general. Within the planning stage, the entire scope of the project can be jeopardized if the team is inexperienced, not qualified, or simply unprepared to tackle the work. When setting up a project team, each team member should be carefully vetted to ensure they have the right skills, experience, and knowledge to complete their tasks and make meaningful contributions to the project. Each project team member has to be able to realistically dedicate sufficient time without being overloaded.

4. Unclear expectations

Even the smallest projects can run into problems when expectations are not clearly set early within a project. Problems don’t typically become concerning until well into the execution and sometimes not until the delivery stage, when customers convey their dissatisfaction. Setting expectations does not fall solely on the project manager–the customer, project sponsor, and teams must also be clear on what is expected from them and each other, and that all information should be well documented.

Tips for dealing with project planning risks

During the project planning phase, no matter how well you plan, some red flags will arise. But you can address the more critical project issues by:

  • Identifying and analyzing potential red flags or issues.

  • Estimating the potential impact on project success.

  • Developing a plan to deal with each issue to minimize the effects.

  • Developing a realistic and comprehensive risk management plan.

  • Gaining feedback from all relevant stakeholders before jumping into the execution phase.

While these are not the only potential red flags that will surface within your projects, it is vital that clearly defined objectives, accurate timelines and budgets, qualified teams, and clear expectations are factored into the planning stages of your projects.