Spot the warning signs. Clean up project emergencies.

If problems are popping up unexpectedly around your company’s projects, products, and people, those, my friends, are red flags. Missing them is tantamount to an acid bath for your organization. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. These red flags will be begging for mercy.

Sales


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Business developer can’t adequately describe any red flags in leads.

Your business developer should be well versed in reciting the ABCs of client risks and rewards. If your business developer can’t recognize obvious warnings when speaking with a new lead, it’s time for some PM support.

The fix

Try having a sit down with your sales team and workshop some red flags together and how they might impact the entire project. At the very least, ask to be brought into all second calls with sales leads so you can ask open-ended questions while jotting down all the flags you notice so you can chat with your business developer about them after the call. Bring up past examples of how red flags impacted projects and profitability.

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Business developer can’t determine if the lead aligns with your organization’s goals or mission.

Watch out: to effectively vet incoming leads, your business developer should implicitly know the organization’s mission and goals and know whether or not that sales lead aligns with them.

The fix

It might be time to do a group sit down and clarify where the company is headed, and what the minimum requirements to work with your org should be.

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Business developer doesn’t bring in the PM after the first or second call to help vet the incoming lead.

If you as the PM only find out about a project the day it hits, your team needs to tighten up its handoffs. Leaving the PM (and the people doing the work) out of the sales process results in projects that are scoped at a fraction of the true size and red flags and complexities that get ignored or left out of the vetting process.

The fix

We highly recommend bringing in a PM (or similar role) early in the sales process to help vet incoming projects and leads to prevent scope inaccuracies, timeline conflicts, and unnecessary risk. They are valuable at seeing the macro and micro views and can help support the alignment of your company with its own business goals.

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The business developer diminishes or overturns the PM’s or team’s concerns about the client or project

As a PM, your job is to sniff out risks that could help or hurt your project. If your business developer won’t take your or your team’s concerns seriously, this is a pretty serious operational breakdown in trust and communication. Despite the fact that people think sales is just about the close, it should be about a good close with a good client.

The fix

The more you can talk through how the sales process and PM role work together to help strengthen good leads and suss out bad ones, the better your org’s chance of survival. Talk to your team and business developer about the risks and benefits of working together if you feel like you can and if not, seek some allies who can help you table that conversation. If it leads nowhere, your org is probably more focused on growth than sustainability and might be a candle in the wind.

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The business developer doesn’t clarify timeline, scope, budget, or stakeholder details within the first call with the lead.

The sooner your business developer has the opportunity to vet incoming leads, the better. Delays in finding out fundamental information drag out the sales process and lead to miscommunications that have a huge impact on the project.

The fix

If your team doesn’t have this core information before a project starts, go back to the sales person and ask for another call with the client to clarify the details. Come prepared with any constraints that might impact the project timeline, budget, or complexity. It’s also smart to have a nonverbal way to communicate with your business developer during the call so as not to undermine them but still to prevent any snap decisions (like a sign for yes or no or a system of doodles). Keep being a loveable hardass. It pays off.

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The business developer or owner tells the team to just make the project work because ‘we need the business.’

Um, this is not good. The pipeline is dry and desperation has sunk its teeth into your leadership’s heart.

The fix

Outline the risks and consequences of taking on this work and find out if there’s any work you can drum up out of existing clients (current ones are always a lower energy barrier than starting fresh). Hopefully, it’s temporary but if these awful but necessary projects become a regular thing, it might be time to brainstorm some new business ideas together as a team to drum up some additional business (as well as solidify a new direction that might differentiate your organization). Like work breeds like work, so if you take on one sick client, more will probably follow.

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The business developer refuses to talk about potential risks with clients and stakeholders.

If your business developer is too afraid or averse to talking about risks and red flags with clients it could undermine your project and lead to a ballooning scope and massive client management issues.

The fix

Find out if there’s anything specific causing your business developer’s discomfort and share a few of these scripts to help ease the conversation. If nothing changes, raise your concerns in the open and find your allies at work who can help reinforce ideas for better communication. It’s a collective effort to button up your processes and reduce incoming risk, and a strong business developer can do a ton to offload this work for the PM. Make sure that your business developer has a solid list of red flags available to reference as new leads come in the door and bring the PM in early to help vet them.

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The contract requires multiple rounds of haggling or major revisions before it begins.

Heads up: the bigger your clients are, the bigger their legal team and expectations. This is alright so long as your org is designed to endure lengthier sales processes and has a kickass lawyer who can navigate the legalese. The red flags come when there’s quibbling over the finest contract details. It can be indicative of your lead’s lack of trust or transparency.

The fix

You better be mutually aligned with your client or this could be a real doozy.

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The lead is a favour or demand from internal stakeholders and doesn’t meet the minimum scope, goals, or budget requirements.

Ever have an owner or teammate slip in a project because they know the lead? Yup, it happens—and it can set an expectation for lower budgets, faster turnarounds, and increased expectations. This is tough on a team because their hands are usually tied.

The fix

If the lead will hurt the team, profits, or company accountability, document this in writing and bring it back to your owner/teammate with a clear outline of the risks involved. Be very clear with the client lead about scope exclusions. If the project starts to slide or the client goes AWOL, see if you can bring in your owner/teammate in early to help manage expectations. Tell your owner/teammate you need their help and describe how this client project makes it very hard on the team to do great work.

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The people doing the work aren’t helping to scope it.

A big no-no. There is nothing more dangerous than someone who doesn’t touch the work planning and communicating to a client how long it will take or how much it will cost. Owners and business developers will typically underestimate the scope and have more optimistic bias about how long it would take them to complete it.

The fix

Rely on your team to help nail down a high-level estimate and schedule range when new projects come in and make sure you’re considering how any red flags will impact your numbers. The people doing the work are the best predictors of its density.

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The prospective client asks for a discount before the first engagement.

That’s not how you roll. Or it shouldn’t be. Discounting work up front sends the message that you’re desperate for the sale rather than confident in the close. It also sets up an expectation for future discounts.

The fix

Whenever a prospective client asks for an upfront cost break, make sure you’re only saying yes if you know the client will be in for a long-term relationship and don’t discount the first project, discount the second—lightly.

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The prospective client has no money or is a not-for-profit who wants free work.

Listen, it’s a good thing to give back to the community, but unfortunately, unless you’re covered by grants or government funding, it can put your org in a dangerous position when you take on free or very low budget work.

The fix

If you’re going to go pro bono, be sure that the clients needs and goals align with your own and that you can financially afford to take the client on. It’s also a good idea to set more rigorous contract terms that can cinch scope and timelines since pro bono clients tend to be the ones who need the most support.

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The prospective client has very strong ideas about what they’re looking for AND how it needs to look.

Danger bay. If your lead thinks they know exactly what they’re looking for and how you should do it, they’ll likely be picky, need more time to make decisions, and they’ll tack on scope with additional change requests.

The fix

Be up front and ask this client how open they are to deviate from their ideas. If they don’t respect the business case or user research and didn’t hire your org for its processes as well as its outputs, it might be time to hit the high road and walk away.

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The prospective client is rude, demeaning, or distrustful.

The fix

Do not work with this client.

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The sales and project teams do not have a clear handoff process for closing sales and starting the project.

If your sales and project teams don’t have a clear handover built into your process, it’s the worst kind of telephone: a dead one.

The fix

To avoid surprises in scope, timelines, and features, make sure you’re buttoned up. Gather project related questions from your team and bring them to sales, or even better, have sales brief the team well before kickoff and don’t stop the meeting till everyone’s questions are answered.

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The sales person completes full proposals for uncertain leads.

Proposals take a lot of work, and if you don’t know whether a lead will close, it can be a wasted effort. If you notice your sales person writing proposals for every uncertain project lead, your org is fishing too hard for the chance at a bite.

The fix

Keep your communications informal and your notes short until you know if your lead wants to move forward and take the next step. They’ll appreciate your org’s candour, and your sale person will appreciate the extra half day of time that materializes when saying no to uncertain proposals.

Discovery


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Important stakeholders missed the kickoff meeting.

You worked hard to make sure the right faces were at the table, but your faces didn’t show. What now?

The fix

Conduct the kickoff and find out as much as you can with a caveat that you’ll need to budget additional time to make sure core stakeholders are looped in next. Then put the project on pause until you can establish what happened and how to move forward. You’ll need to clarify stakeholder roles now that fundamental decision makers were left out of the mix or it’ll lead to major breakdowns throughout the project. Clearly, alignment is out of whack and it looks like folks have different priorities. Then again, your poor stakeholders may have been dragged off a United flight without their consent. Always get the facts before making assumptions.

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Research reveals a hidden barrier or project constraint.

You’re half way through research and suddenly realize your scope is triple what you thought it would be. Uh oh: this is sure to be death by scope creep.

The fix

As soon as you know, it’s time to talk with your team and then your client/stakeholders. If you know what your Minimum Viable Product should be, tasks will be easier to prioritize, but if you don’t, now’s the time to make some hard decisions with your client team. Do: Work together to prioritize the items that will return the most value to the people paying for it. Come back to lower priority items later with an additional budget. Don’t: promise to do all the work anyway—or your company will lose its shirt.

This is why research is so grande. It lets you catch the zingers before they catch you.

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Your client downplays the importance of research.

Aside from this being an egregious affront to the scientific world, it’s just plain dangerous. Is your client omnipotent? She’d better be. Or you bound to build the wrong thing.

The fix

Most projects fail because of stakeholder misalignment which often leads to a breakdown in prioritizing project requirements. Research is the bucket that catches all the data so you know what your requirements should be in the first place. Explain to your stakeholders that research ensures you don’t build the wrong thing and it means you don’t waste your resources. If they push back or disagree, run for the hills. This client will be looking for a finger to aim at you later when denial gives way to reality.

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Your developers zone out when you ask for help with kickoff questions.

If your team gets that deer-in-the-headlights look when you ask for their help with questions (or worse, shrugs and gives you the obvious ones), remember they’re human. Most of the day they’re eyeball deep in code, and deep questions require strategic focus instead of intense focus. Two very different parts of the brain at work.

The fix

Imagine your developers are submarines and give them time to come up for air. Do an exercise to help them transition from logic brain to strategy brain like a group puzzle or estimating challenge (how many jellyfish in this jar). Prime them with related questions, work backward from a futuristic launch, and ask hypothetically ’what went wrong’ along the way. The more your team wholeheartedly understand the depth and scope of the work they need to do, the better the chance you’ll break down silos and create better, more efficient solutions.

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Your interviewees never seem to be available or won’t make time for the project

Warning, you could have a case of stakeholder misalignment on your hands. That, or your client isn’t real and we’re all living in the Matrix.

The fix

Talk to your point of contact and find out if they can wrangle some times on your behalf—if they’re able to put pressure on, interviewees are more likely to commit. If not, consider how you can get this info from another research candidate and proceed with caution. We all know folks are busy, but sabotage is another layer which indicates problems deeper down in the structure of the org. Tread lightly.

Scheduling & resourcing


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Resources disappear during your project.

You scheduled in your resources just like a good PM should but they’ve been pulled onto other projects. What now?

The fix

Classic. You’ll need to either hire, outsource, or reallocate those nice humans on your project team. Your best option is to have a solid planning conversation with other leads who book resources and determine the priority and order of those projects so you can see if timelines should shift or more people need to be added. This is a planning and scheduling issue more than a capacity issue—But make sure you know what problem you’re solving by exploring how busy your teammates are over the next few months and adjusting accordingly.

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Several projects are set to launch in the same time frame before a major holiday.

A couple late starts and a couple late finishes and you’re stuck with a situation where all your projects are launching at the same time.

The fix

Find out if there’s any wiggle room to launch later and if not, clamp down on the scope and consider dedicated sprints where you focus on driving one project forward at full team capacity (to reduce distractions) before switching to another. Have a conversation with your stakeholders and determine if you can re-prioritize any items after launch to save a week or two. Make sure to celebrate with your team once they hit the finish line, and by Zeus, don’t launch on a Friday before a major holiday unless you want to be the least liked person at your org. Good luck.

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The client shortened the timeline on your team.

A sudden project change has bumped up your project deadline but your current scope will make it impossible to complete in time.

The fix

Have a prioritization conversation with your stakeholders and find out if they’d rather reduce scope or add budget to accommodate the additional resources you’ll need to finish the project in time. If they balk at the conversation, this is a big red flag: you can’t expect an org to do double the work in half the time and not feel the consequences. Set some clear expectations around scope and budget or get out before it’s too late.

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Too many projects scheduled at once or surprise projects land on top of a planned schedule.

Your business developer hit you and your project team with another project on top of your already brimming schedule.

The fix

When a team is over capacity (e.g., working on more than three projects at any given time) they will have trouble focusing and prioritizing which will put timelines at risk and will increase their stress. When surprise projects land on top of a team, it’s a sign of poor planning or poor cash flow (aka desperate measures). Try to block out a few days per sprint to tackle this extra project and see if there’s wiggle room to extend your other project timelines. It’s also a good idea to stagger your project starts and launches by and build in a good-sized chunk of buffer between them.

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Urgent deadlines with no clearly defined reason for the urgency.

Your stakeholders set a firm deadline for your project but never gave you a reason why. Uh oh.

The fix

Always find out why a project is due and if that due date is flexible. Find out if there are any related projects that are launching in the vicinity. If not, make sure to ask about the consequences of a late launch and make a backup plan for prioritizing scope just in case—many times a deadline is a false assumption which puts unnecessary pressure on the team and client.

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