The key to keeping a project running smoothly is to know what is happening with it. That sounds so obvious, you would think that everyone would be doing it, but that isn’t the case. The trick is to really know what is happening on the project. And that is often more art than science.

To maintain a true awareness of how things are going, you can’t depend on reports and meetings for the information you need. You have to develop the skill of “listening” to your project—picking up on changes that may signal potential problems. Then you have a shot at heading off those problems before they get out of hand. Let’s look at some ways this skill can come into play.

Reports don’t tell the entire story
Team leaders can’t rely on scheduled e-mail or hard-copy reports to stay on top of a project, and the Monday status meeting isn’t much better. After all, most people have a tendency to paint the brightest picture possible. Your team typically won’t include negative information in their status reports, and they’re likely to downplay any problems they have to mention. An appropriate focus on timeliness, deliverables, resources, and budget items will usually prevail.

In fact, if a problem does come up in a status meeting, it is probably already too big to manage smoothly, and it will be a distraction, embarrassment, or drain on resources until it is brought under control.

Keep your ear to the ground
To head problems off at the pass, you need to know as much as possible about all the activities on your project, and you should learn to be sensitive to the sometimes subtle and unexpected changes in the “pulse” of the project. Here are some strategies for keeping up on how things are really going:

  • Practice “management by walking around” (MBWA). Management guru Tom Peters advocated MBWA in the 1980s. The short version of his approach is this: Get out of your office or cubical, walk around, ask questions, take an interest. Do it often, do it regularly, do it sincerely.
  • Listen for what is not being said. As you read status reports or sit in a status meeting, what are you not hearing? This type of listening is not easy to do. It means you have to be aware of every aspect of the project. But is there some topic that came up last week that no one wants to mention?
  • Eat in the lunchroom, not at your desk. While you are at it, get your drinks at the proverbial water cooler too. In other words, go where the team does its “inform” shoptalk. Keep your mouth shut and listen. No, you are not spying. In fact, your team may draw you into their conversation anyway. Just don’t dominate their discussion. Listen and learn.

Look while listening
Okay, you’re tuned into the vibes of the project and the team. Now what? How do you know if something is “off”? Developing a gut feeling for this sort of thing would be nice, and ultimately, it’s what you should strive for. In the meantime, however, here are some items of a more concrete nature that may help you spot the beginning of a problem:

  • Delays in moving code to QA or production status
  • Abbreviated task durations (for example, shortened QA or development cycles)
  • Lack of attendance at project meetings
  • A decline in team motivation and energy
  • Negative or ambivalent comments from team members
  • Concerns raised by team members and/or their supervisors
  • Negative comments regarding direction or approach taken
  • Unexpected changes in project scope
  • Missed milestones

Stay plugged in
This article has introduced a few of the ways you can plug in to the real story of what is happening on your project, and it’s offered some common signals that a project may have taken a wrong turn. Take advantage of these techniques and indicators to try to find out what issues may require special attention or intervention. Continue to “listen” to your projects—it may become your best system for an early warning of coming problems.

How do you stay informed as to the real status of your projects?

What are some of the things that you do to continually monitor the health of your project? Send us an e-mail with your suggestions and experiences or post a comment below.