7 Indicators a Project Has Gone Off the Rails

When a project loses its focus, identifying these signs is essential to prevent its failure.
June 1, 2022
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With a clear objective, proper management, and the right development team, your projects should hum along smoothly. Although problems will inevitably rear their ugly heads, generally speaking, they won’t cause your project to go off the rails. 

However, things do happen that can send those projects flying sideways to the point where they either become a struggle to complete, or they simply can’t come to completion.

To avoid such an eventuality with your projects, you need to be able to spot the indicators that your project is either about to go off the rails, or it already has. But what are those indicators? Believe it or not, they’re almost always obvious. In fact, if you’re paying attention, it’s almost impossible to miss those signs, so long as you know what you’re looking for.

Let’s dive in and take a look at 7 indicators that a project has gone off the rails (or is about to).

When Upper Management Has No Vision For a Project

From the onset of a project, upper management should have a very clear vision of what this project is about. They should have done their research and known what the market is, what the project should accomplish, how the project should be best broken down, and where this project lives within the realm of the business. 

If upper management has no vision for the project, it has gone off the rails from the very beginning, and the chances it can be saved are very slim. If you suspect those in charge have no idea what the project is about, why it’s necessary, or how the project can come to successful fruition, step in and let them know that level of failure will doom a project right away.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

You might find there are quite a large number of teams working on a single project. That’s great because it means there’ll be plenty of momentum and productivity to keep the project moving forward. However, when a project finds itself spearheaded by too many leaders, problems can arise.

A project should have a single leader overseeing the big picture. Every team should also have a leader that reports to the project supervisor. If the project management isn’t divided properly, it’ll be a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation where egos and ideas will clash to the point nothing can get done. 

Ignoring Expert Opinions

There are experts for every subject matter. You might have found one of the greatest minds ever to be involved with, say, Java. For a Java project, you would think listening to that expert would be an absolute must. But many projects go off the rails simply because they (or, rather, the leaders of the project) ignore the opinions of the experts.

If your company has access to an expert opinion regarding a project, it should willingly take that advice and run with it. If you find team and project leaders ignoring the advice of those experts, you can be sure that the project is probably going to go off the rails at some point.

Division Between Departments

In many cases, a project is created and built by multiple departments. You might have operations, developers, designers, and administrators all working together to make the project a success.

However, when those departments start to divide over crucial decisions, that project is going to jump the rails. That’s where a strong project leader will be required, otherwise, no one will be capable of bringing those departments together to close that widening division between the rank and file.

Cost Skyrockets

Every so often, a project will be running smoothly, and then, out of nowhere, the cost of the project will skyrocket. This could be because of a decision made by the higher-ups to shift the focus or scale the project well before its time.

If during a carefully planned out project, the cost dramatically jumps, something could very well be wrong. It could be that upper management has decided they want more from the project than was originally planned. If, however, they don’t bring every stakeholder into those meetings (where the cost decisions are made), it could be a clear warning sign.

Deadlines Keep Getting Missed

Every project is guided by deadlines. This is especially so when a project is for a specific client or software that is intended for public consumption. Many times, those deadlines are hard-coded and can’t be changed.

But things happen, and deadlines are missed. When that happens repeatedly, something is wrong. Either the software development team is struggling with the task at hand, the project leader has built-in impossible deadlines, or various departments are working well together.

Regardless of the reason, if deadlines keep getting missed, a project is most likely heading for disaster. If you find deadlines keep getting missed, you should bring it to the attention of the project leader. The leader will probably be aware of the missed deadlines, but possibly not of how it will affect the project as a whole.

Business Objectives Have Been Sidelined

Finally, every project should have very clear business objectives. These will be along the lines of how to monetize a project, how every aspect of the development process should serve the vision of the project, how the project serves the brand, and how the project is to be managed.

If some (or, in worst cases, all) of those objectives are being sidelined for one reason or another, that project is going to skate right off the rails and into oblivion.

Along with a clear vision, a project needs to align with the objectives of the business as a whole. When that doesn’t happen, things go wrong.


With careful planning and management, your projects can all run very smoothly. But it doesn’t always take a disaster to send a project careening off the rails. The second you see any of these warning signs, bring your concern to either your team or project leader and hope they have the necessary skills and ideas to put that project back on track.

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