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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?

28 Responses to “5 Warning Signs of a Project In Danger”

  1. I am a web developer and having been stung on a few ocasions recently, more so due to the downturn in the economy I now have the client sign a legally binding contract before i commence any work.

  2. I have some tips to help prevent this situation.

    I’m providing them with the caveat that there ares some clients who are dishonest and set out to get work done for ‘free’ or at steeply discounted prices. There is no real protection from them.

    These deep discounts can happen in software development where some customers believe the cost of software should be only slightly more than the cost of the CD you put it on. And of course it is intellectual property they are stealing – a difficult proposition for the courts.

    So here goes:

    1. references – if possible, talk with contractors who have done work for this customer in the past. Was the customer collaborative, enagaged and honest or did they try to change the contract, i.e., ‘negotiate’ the fees after the fact?

    2. statement of work – prepare a SOW which clearly states the objectives, operating mode (time and materials, fixed price, etc.), deliverables, completion or success criteria, project timeline and milestones. If fixed price, tie progress payments to the milestones. If time and materials, specify weekly or bi-weekly invoices and payment. These are your secondary early warning systems.

    3. status – provide frequent reports (emails are fine) of the work done and milestones achieved. This will be invaluable if the courts are necessary.

    4. schedule review sessions – this falls under the category of communications. Where everyone is too busy, think about the next suggestion.

    5. termination – where the customer is stonewalling on scheduled payments, be prepared to walk away. Cut your losses – your investment and risk under these circumstances only increases with time.

    And where there is no satisfactory outcome, consider sharing your bad experience, naming names, with the rest of us.

  3. Slartibartfarst

    This looks like a classic textbook case of the sorts of learning a newbe might get about project management, through trial and error. Learning by trial and error is one of the most common and effective ways of learning, however it means that you might not be learning from the mistakes made by others who have preceded you. In your ignorance (and we are all ignorant) you could be unwittingly repeating the mistakes made by others. This case would seem to be an example of just that.

    Failure in project management can hit your pocket hard, and risks besmirching your professional reputation, so, what could be useful would be some advance information on hard-won knowledge and experience that would help one to avoid the more common risks – e.g., as those identified in the post – in the first place.

    There is in the public domain a vast amount of knowledge about project management, all documented. I would recommend that people use it, and that they also talk to people experienced in project management. Taking a course in project management, and particularly in project controls, could also be a good investment, and less costly over the long run than continuing with trial and error.

  4. I found this fascinating. I have been there, having that sinking feeling that things are going very wrong. My worst ever client was only accessible by phone and email.

    The common problem here is when the client misunderstands or ignores one vital point :– Effort is required of both client and contractor to achieve mutual profit.

    Some fail to realise that they are at the receiving end of a mutual business exchange. Both parties need to be happy at the end of the exchange to achieve satisfaction.

    They see you, the contractor, as the ‘giver’ and if the ‘gift’ is not acceptable to them they do not tell you. They then complain to everyone else but you. They assume that the only way out of the situation is to find another ‘giver’.

    People like that go from ‘giver’ to ‘giver’ complaining all the while. They forget or ignore the fact that the contractor stands to profit. A big part of that profit is customer satisfaction – evidence that we are good at our work. Of course, there are those that know this and take advantage of it by never being satisfied. They then make absolutely sure that they have profited far more than the contractor by pushing the contractor beyond the limits of reason.

    After my worst experiences, I have learned to be wary. If I hear a new prospective client complaining emphatically about their last contractor, alarm bells ring in my instincts.

    When you work for a great client that wants you to profit too, life is good :-) I hope that your next client is much better!

  5. This is so true, i feel like reading my own experience, especially that “I have a meeting in 5 minutes” thing!

    I will go with you advice from now on, and send emails and make calls whenever i feel uneasy.

  6. Feeling uneasy as a warning not be overheard, i met that before, and I agree strongly with your point. Admittedly in not exactly the same situation, but your experience certainly carries over, as maybe vice versa. That situation was me working as a regular employee, actually supposed to lead a team of developers. I’d like to contribute more signs, like these: Uninterruptable talking; the feeling, that the other person doesn’t constructively take up your proposition; leaving you in a position where you work but have no certainty of your work is acknowledged. I even allowed the other side to leave me in a position where I was ridiculously underpowered to achieve the goals that they had set before. As long as I’m paid I do not expect any further extra thank you. But in the end even my underpowered position was put to question. That was too much, and somehow, miraculously i managed to get out and into a much more rewarding situation. My message is yes, trust your feelings, and, in addition, show leadership towards your own situation. Nothing overwhelmingly new, in fact, but that’s the difference between theory and experience I guess.

  7. It’s funny you said that, Kim, because my Unpaid Invoice Guy throws in a lot of unnecessary details too! I once got a UPS tracking number for a package that obviously never got picked up (since it never existed). I wondered whatever happened to the tried and true “it’s in the mail” lie?

  8. Just happened to me last year for the first time in ten years of being freelance: the eternally unpaid invoice. I actually believed all the excuses. Then I showed my husband one of the emailed responses from the CD/principal of the agency. My husband’s first response: “Hey’s lying.” I asked him how he knew. I mean, he’s a lawyer, but still. He said he knew because the guy threw in so much unnecessary detail about lost mail and change of address and vacations and his son who worked there who didn’t know about invoices. I finally did get paid but refused to do another job for him.

  9. Trusting that instinct is something I’m trying to learn. The one and only time I have been shafted at the invoice stage was on a project that went okay at the beginning. The client was kind of high maintenance but pretty friendly, and he seemed really happy with my work. Yet when the time came to invoice, and months of follow-ups and no payment ensued, I knew the very first time I sent a follow-up about my invoice that I wouldn’t get paid. I have no idea how I knew that (as I said, none of the rest of the warning signs were present) but I knew it nonetheless. It’s remarkable what our gut can know in the absence of any other supporting evidence!