How to evaluate a new project in five minutes flat

IF you’ve ever watched TV hospital dramas, you’ll know that scene where the crash cart comes through the door and the doctor checks for the patient’s vital signs. Just as people have vital signs, so do projects. Assessing them quickly is a vital skill, and immediately gives you a view on whether something is likely to succeed or fail.

Projects have six vital signs – the goal, the plan, the leader, what we’ll call supply and demand, contingency and risk. They’re not equally important. Think of the goal and the plan as being scored out of 20. The leader and the supply and demand can be scored out of 10, and the contingency and risk out of five. This allows you to quickly give a project a score out of 70 and to assess its likely success.

The Goal (20). What are you trying to achieve? Do you know precisely what’s within the scope of your project and what’s outside it? Score high if you do. If there’s any kind of doubt, uncertainty or ambiguity, score low.

The Plan (20). There should be a plan with about 6-12 high level blocks each resulting in a milestone – something that can be clearly demonstrated to have been achieved. Then each of these blocks should be broken down into detailed jobs. For each job you should have figured out not just how long it’s going to take but how much work is involved. Three people working full time for a day is one day in duration but three days of work. Score low if your plan is not like this. Also score low if the goal scored low – if you don’t know what you’re trying to do, you can’t have a plan to do it.

The Leader (10). There should be somebody who shepherds your project forward, making sure that the jobs are getting done. Score 10 if there is, 0 if there isn’t.

Supply and Demand (10). Let’s say you’ve figured out the amount of work to be done and it’s 100 days. This is the demand. Then there had better be a hundred days worth of people to do the work.

This is the supply. This reflects the rather obvious fact that jobs don’t get done if there aren’t people to do them. The closer you come to supply = demand, the higher the score.

Contingency (5). There had better be contingency in your plan for the things that will inevitably go wrong. Contingency can be – for example – having a cushion of time or some extra money in the budget to cover those unexpected things that will inevitably occur. The more contingency, the higher the score.

Risk Analysis (5). Somebody had better have analysed what could go wrong on your project, how likely those things are to happen and the effect if they do. Score 5 if they have, 0 if they haven’t.

If the total score is under 40 and your project is at an early stage then that’s fine. The low individual scores will tell you the things that have to be fixed. If the result is under 40 and your project has been running for a long time, you should be very, very afraid.

Fergus O’Connell’s What You Need to Know about Project Management is published in January by Wiley