5 Warning Signs of a Project In Danger

787445_576830171Recently, I was subcontracting for an ad agency when things went unexpectedly wrong. There had been points in the process when I felt things weren’t quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. In retrospect, I can see that those moments were actually blatant warning signs that the project was going awry.

Now I keep these warning signs in mind. They’re indicators that I need to take immediate action to keep my project on track. If you’re working remotely, that can be much harder to do than if you have daily face-to-face contact with your colleagues, but hopefully these tips will help you avoid the trap I fell into.

The project had started in the normal way. I took the brief, produced the work, and sent it off in draft form for review with the words, “I look forward to your amendments.” But there were no amendments. My contact at the agency asked for my invoice the same day. I wound up having to chase payment, my contact was avoiding me, and in the end, I only got paid for half the job.

Here are the five warning signs that should have alerted me to the danger.

Warning Sign 1: Moving Away from the Agreed Plan

When I emailed my contact the copy his client had commissioned — a 30-second radio ad — and he had no amendments, I thought it was very odd. I’d included time for client amendments in my project estimate, which he’d approved. We’d also discussed the turnaround time for amendments, so we were both expecting that my ad copy wouldn’t be spot-on the first time.

When his only response to my submission of the draft ad was to ask me to send the invoice, I thought it was weird. Weirder still was that he emailed me this instruction: most of my clients will call to discuss draft copy. In an office, body language and behavior indicates clearly if a colleague is uncomfortable. But even email and phone conversations provide limited feedback.

What I should have done was called my contact immediately after I received his email to confirm that he and his client really had no amendments, and that both were happy to wrap the project up. But at the time I dismissed my unease, telling myself he was probably just busy.

Warning Sign 2: Unprecedented Behavior

No one I’ve ever worked with has accepted copy straight up, without amendments. Ever. So this should have been a huge red flag for me. If a person you’re working with does something you’ve never seen before — and their behavior affects you — check it out with them.

Before you do anything else, give them a call to get clarification about what’s going on. If their behavior has made you at all nervous or uneasy, let them know. By raising the topic, you give them the opportunity to talk about any issues they have — issues that, as in my contact’s case, they may otherwise be uncomfortable raising with you.

Warning Sign 3: Silence

A sudden silence can mean that your colleague has been called out of the office unexpectedly. Or it can mean that they have a problem that they don’t know how to discuss with you.

After I sent my 14-day invoice, I heard nothing from my client — not even an acknowledgment that he’d received it. Again, slightly uneasy, I reassured myself that he was probably busy. What I should have been doing was calling to follow up my invoice and make sure he’d received it.

As it turned out, when I called after the invoice due date and left a message, he didn’t respond. I emailed; no reply. When I called the following week, I was told he’d gone on leave for two weeks. When I was put through to Accounts, they told me there was a problem with the invoice and they’d been instructed not to pay it.

Warning Sign 4: Fast Talking

When I finally spoke to my contact, it was over the phone, and he told me that his client hadn’t liked the copy and they’d had to rewrite it. But he was going into a meeting and couldn’t talk now. He’d see that I “got paid at least part of the invoice,” and then he was gone.

By this time, I knew he wasn’t going to pay. I also knew he didn’t have a meeting. But there was still time to salvage things, had I wanted to. If this happened to me now, I’d ask to stop by the client’s office for ten minutes and discuss the problems with my work. Don’t let a client try to bamboozle you with fast talk or excuses — no matter how much they sugar-coat their story. Discussing the problems can also give you a chance to rectify the situation.

Warning Sign 5: General Unease

It won’t surprise you that all through this process I felt a general sense of unease — one that grew as matters progressed.

Now, whenever I get that feeling, I know I need to try to work out the cause of the discomfort. As my experience showed, it’s tempting to ignore your instincts and hope that things will go the way you’d like. No one likes to be uncomfortable, after all. But if you’re feeling it, you’re feeling it for a reason. Don’t ever ignore it!

If you look at your discomfort more closely, you can usually identify the source of the issue. Then, you can formulate a plan to right matters. Perhaps you’ll explain your concerns, point by point, in an email, and then call your contact to discuss those concerns. Or maybe you’ll make a few decisions about how you’ll move forward on the project, setting boundaries you will and won’t cross, or creating a series of requirements you’ll need to have met before you progress through each deliverable.

These five warning signs now ring alarm bells whenever I encounter them. Being aware of them, and acting on them, has kept me out of trouble since The Job That Went Bad. What warning signs do you watch for in your projects?