TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

I’m managing a project that’s more or less on track after three months, with six months to go until the deadline date. Perhaps I’m just being nervous, but I have a feeling the project is going to start slipping in the coming months. One reason I’m nervous is that we padded some of the work at the beginning of the schedule so that we could try to get ahead. However, we’re simply on schedule now, and that makes me think we’re actually behind where we wanted to be. Are there some things we can look for to know if we’re in trouble?

Obviously your project is in trouble if you’re missing deadlines and consistently exceeding the estimated effort and cost to get work done. However, your question provides a little twist. You have a project that actually appears to be on schedule, yet you’re concerned about potential problems down the road.

I believe there are specific warning signs you can look for that will give some sense of potential risks. At this point, you can’t really call them issues or problems, but they can be identified as risks that have the potential to throw off your project in the future.

Are you falling behind early in the project?
Many project managers fall prey to the belief that if they fall behind in a project early on, they can make up the time through the remainder of the project. I always looked at this the other way around. I think there’s a natural tendency to fall behind as the project progresses. First of all, the farther out you plan, the less accurate you will be. Second, there are always things that come up on your project that you don’t expect, and these last-minute surprises always take time to sort out.

I believe it is in your best interest to try to get ahead of schedule early on in a project. Don’t do this with the expectation that you will actually finish ahead of schedule (although that would be nice). Do it with the expectation that you will need the extra time later on when things come up that you don’t expect.

Your dilemma is based on this approach. It sounds like you purposely put some buffer in the schedule to try to get ahead early. Since you are still on schedule, and not ahead of schedule, this may be a sign that work is taking longer than you think. This, in turn, increases the risk that your team will fall behind schedule as you begin the more aggressively estimated work.

If you find that you’re falling behind early in the project, your best remedy is to start putting corrective plans in place immediately. Don’t sit back passively and hope you can make the time up later. Be proactive instead, and take action today to get back on schedule.

Are you identifying more and more risks?
In terms of this particular question, it appears that you don’t have a multitude of issues that you are currently addressing, because, if you did, you probably would not still be on schedule. However, while you may be on schedule now, you could still face a number of identified risks in the future. Of course, all projects have some future risks, but if you see more and more risks as the project continues, your project could be in serious trouble.

If you face this risk, the good news is that you have identified it while there is still time to address it. Even if you have a greater-than-normal number of these risks, you may still be okay if you focus on managing them successfully.

Has client participation faded?
Your client needs to be actively engaged during the planning process and while you are gathering the business requirements. If you cannot get the client excited to participate during this timeframe, then you’re in trouble. However, many times the client begins to get disengaged when the project is a third completed and the work starts to turn more toward the project team. This, too, can be a major risk factor for project success.

It’s important to keep the client actively involved. The project manager needs to continue to communicate proactively, and seek the clients’ input on all scope changes, issues resolution, and risk plans. The client absolutely needs to be actively involved in testing. The project manager needs to make sure that the client stays involved and enthusiastic. Otherwise, testing and implementation will be a problem down the road.

Is morale declining?
On the surface, if you’re on schedule, there’s no reason for morale to be going south. However, if you detect that morale is slipping, it could be a sign that your project is in trouble. Your next step is to determine the cause. Morale might be declining because people are being asked to work a lot of extra hours to keep the project on track. People on the team might also believe that the future schedule is unrealistic. Whatever the reasons for it, poor morale needs to investigated and combated. If morale is low early on in the project’s timeframe, you should be concerned that the morale issue will continue to get worse as the project’s deadline gets closer.

One of the important responsibilities of the project manager is to continually update the work plan, identify risks, and manage expectations. As you know, a project that seems on track today could have major problems tomorrow. So, keep your eyes open for the warning signs that things are worse than they appear. If you recognize them ahead of time, they can all be classified as project risks, and can be managed and controlled in a manner that will allow your project to succeed.