How do you recognize your project is escalating?

"Is your project turning into a black hole?"

IT projects can become the business equivalent of what astrophysicists know as black holes, absorbing large quantities of matter and energy. Resources get sucked in, but little or no business benefit ever comes out. How can you recognizing if your project is becoming a black hole?

Projects will not turn into a black hole in one day. They go through a process. Keil and Mähring (2010) created a framework we can use to detect whether a project is at risk of becoming a black hole and determine to what stage the process has advanced. The table below shows the differtent stages of project escalation. 

Project set-up

Many design mistakes can be made in the set-up of the project. Projects can be set-up for success or for failure. Some best practices for a good project set-up (without being complete) are involvement of the business, clear scope, appropriate representation of senior management, solid business case (including project objectives, project deliverables and business benefits you want to realize) and an intrinsic motivated team, which is available.

Phase 1 - Drifting

Phase 1 of the escalation process is when the first problems emerges. You can recognize your project is drifting when there are ambiguities regarding project goals and direction. Especially if the ambiguities cannot be resolved within a relative short period of time. Another sign your project is drifting is when stakeholders have a different view on the primary objective of the project, than there is little hope that they will agree on the scope of the project. Do the one minute test to see if your project is drifting.

Phase 2 - Treating symptoms

The second stage of the escalation process is when problem visibility increases. More people in the organization are now aware the project/ program is not running as it should be. Still, in many cases the project-related problems are addressed rather superficial and the problems are handled isolated from each other. Project managers will tell you, if we solve this issue, everything will be fine and we can continue. Root causes of project failure (e.g. lack of leadership, lack of methodology, high complexity, high uncertainty) are not addressed. Do the test to see if your project is already in the phase of treating symptoms.

Phase 3 - Rationalizing continuation

The third phase of escalation involves rationalizing continuation. By this point, decision makers and project participants have become acutely aware that the problems facing the project are more serious than they had originally judged them to be. During this phase, more people begin to doubt the project and, depending on the culture of the organization, these doubts may be expressed and discussed more widely. At the same time, projects in this stage of escalation normally have highly committed and influential backers, who are unwilling to consider termination. Do the test to see if you are rationalizing continuation.

Project termination or turnaround

The final stage of the escalation process. Are you continuing with your project or do you terminate it? If you are in doubt if you need to continue or not, you can conduct a number of hearing. Ask if you owned this company, what would you do with the project, and why?” Be clear that you are not looking to criticize, but to get a good picture of a complex situation.

Obviously, the sooner you detect your project is escalating, the better. The further you are in the escalating process, the more costlier and more difficult it will be to stop. In an early stage of escalation, fewer resources have been consumed and it is less difficult to change the direction of a project because the project has less momentum. So, what can you do if your project is escalating?

Keil and Mähring give some options: 

  • Temporarily freeze and/ or reduce the number of project members. Halt the project temporarily and take people out of the daily hustle of the project.
  • Create transparency and visibility for a broader set of stakeholders this makes the upholding of unrealistic views and assumptions increasingly difficult.
  • Let a small, experience team do the re-assessment and re-planning.
  • Put your best people on the project and resolve the root causes.
  • Make a clear go/ no go decision.
  • Bring in outside expertise for a review.
  • Conduct a series of hearings and ask the question: "if you owned this company, what would you do with the project, and why?"

If you want to discuss your project, please let us know and contact us.

Interessed and want to read more?

  1. Keil, M. and Mähring, M., Is Your Project Turning into a Black Hole?, California review management, vol. 53, Issue 1 (2010). 

5 questions to analyse if your project is drifting

Q1: The project has been going on for some time without consensus among key stakeholders regarding the objective(s) of the project.  

Q2: The project has been going on for some time without agreement regarding how best to achieve the project objective(s).

Q3: Although considerable time and money has already been spent on the project, there appear to be few, if any, deliverables present or finished.

Q4: Work continues on the project in spite of a vague or ambiguous project charter.

Q5: Conflicts regarding the goals and direction of the project remain unresolved.

Score 1 point for every question you answered "Yes" and 0 for every question you answered with "No" . Add up your total points. 

  • 0 points. You are safe! This project is not drifting, nor is it in danger of doing so.
  • 1 or 2 points. This project is either beginning to drift or is in danger of drifting.
  • 3, 4 or 5 points. This project is definitely drifting

5 questions to analyse if your are treating symptoms

Q1: Project-related problems are being addressed in a superficial way.

Q2: As soon as one problem is addressed another one emerges.

Q3: Each problem that occurs is described as isolated from other problems and is treated independently.

Q4: Actions taken to solve problems constitute minor adjustments or “quick fixes.”

Q5: Problems are seen as being addressable without any need to review or reconsider the current project goals or direction.

Score 1 point for every question you answered "Yes" and 0 for every question you answered with "No" . Add up your total points. 

  • 0 points. You are safe! The underlying causes of project problems are being addressed and not just the symptoms resulting from these problems.
  • 1 or 2 points. Watch out! It is likely that the symptoms of project problems are being addressed and not their underlying causes.
  • 3, 4 or 5 points. Underlying causes of problems are not being addressed, you are treating symptoms.

5 questions to analyse if your are rationalizing continuation

Q1: Proponents of the project keep coming up with new reasons for why the project must be completed.

Q2: Experts have been enlisted ostensibly to “evaluate” the project but may be motivated to advocate for continuing the project.

Q3: A growing number of people outside the project are now raising doubts about the wisdom of continuing the project.

Q4: As projected expenditures rise, experts portray alternative solutions and project abandonment as even more costly or problematic to pursue.

Q5: Despite growing recognition that the project is in a troubled state, the prevailing assumption is that pressing ahead will eventually bring the project out of the woods.

Score 1 point for every question you answered "Yes" and 0 for every question you answered with "No" . Add up your total points. 

  • 0 points. You are safe! Rationalization of project continuation is not occurring.
  • 1 or 2 points. Watch out! This project may be entering the phase in which continuation is rationalized.
  • 3, 4 or 5 points. You are rationalizing continuation of your project.