Chapter 3 - Project Momentum

Chapter 3 - Project Momentum

What’s the primary goal of a project manager?

  • To successfully deliver the project

What are the biggest reasons for a project to fail?

  • Improper constraining of scope, time, or costs.

The answers to these two questions leave us with a good picture of ways for a project to fail. But, we still don’t yet have a clear picture of how a project succeeds.

The #1 Best Project Health Signal

What is the best way to measure the health of a project?


When a project has momentum, it is very healthy!

Momentum is the very best health metric, since it’s directly linked to the progress made on the project, and the rate of change of that velocity. There are many other metrics that people use, but nothing else is as directly linked to delivering the project as momentum.

What does project momentum look like?

A project has momentum when the project evolves and moves towards its goals at a predictable and consistent pace. People are excited about it! Tasks are being completed. Conversations are being sparked about the implementation details. New demos and screenshots are being released frequently.

You can tell there is project momentum when there is measurable progress combined with excitement!

If a project is missing either of these two things, that’s a very bad sign. Without progress, the project is not moving forward technically. It doesn’t matter how excited people are, if the project isn’t closer to a reality today than it was yesterday. Without excitement, it doesn’t matter how fast it gets built because the stakeholders or customers aren’t mentally feeling it.

These are the two components of this momentum you are looking for:

  1. Excitement - Social Momentum
  2. Measurable Progress - Technical Momentum

Story Time: Project Watchdog

A couple of years ago, I was brought in as an Engineering Contributor for an enterprise software project. Project Watchdog was the pet project of one of the Senior Directors of Engineering. The project had been planned and prioritized for 9 months and had an action squad actively assigned to it for 3 months.

We held weekly cross-team meetings to discuss the project and track it’s progress. Every week, on Thursday morning, we assembled in a conference room with representatives from 3 different teams. Our dedicated Project Manager pulled up the project board in Jira and we looked at all the work items remaining.

For the first two weeks, people on each team were reporting significant progress. Work tickets had been finished during the week, and we were closer to project completion. After those first two weeks, progress trickled to a halt. We assembled on Thursday morning, and as the team members gave their project progress updates, everyone gave reasons why no Watchdog work had been accomplished.

Since my engineering tasks were finished in the initial two weeks, I volunteered to help with the remaining non-Engineering tasks. The representatives from the other two teams declined the offer, saying that they were on top of things and they didn’t need any help.

The exact same things happened, every Thursday for the next eight weeks. We all assembled to sync on Watchdog progress. All the participants went around the room explaining why no work had happened in the past week.

On the ninth week, the Senior Director of Engineering himself attended the meeting to find out why the project wasn’t progressing. Next Monday, we all received an email explaining the Project Watchdog had been canceled. It came as no surprise to any of us. We had sat in the same room and watched as eight weeks went by with literally no progress made.

There is more than one root cause for why Watchdog failed so spectacularly, but the clearest indicator of the project’s health was its momentum. We watched as the project went from making significant progress to being completely stopped. We watched as people went from excited about it, to dreading the weekly excuse-giving ceremony. The project lost its technical momentum and its social momentum, and so it died.

How To Get Momentum?

To have momentum, you only need a few elements.

1. Right Team Members

You need to have the right team. The team should be excited about the project. Each team member must have a personal vested interest in the project.

You need to have people who are technically capable of delivering the project. If you have the wrong people or put people in the wrong roles, that will show up later and hurt the project momentum.

2. Clear Vision

Your team needs to have a good understanding of what is being made, why it matters, and how it is being made. This is no easy task!

There must be a clear and shared understanding of the problem space.

  • What will the product do?
  • What will it enable its users to do?
  • What need does it fulfill?

Also, there must be a clear and shared understanding of the solution space.

  • What pieces will be in the final project?
  • How will they all work together?
  • Who is doing which part?

Teams who have a shared understanding of the project and a shared vision for how to deliver it will always outperform teams who don’t hold a common vision.

3. Hype People

Someone must be the project cheerleader! They must be excited about it!

This is both outward-facing (marketing) and inward-facing (motivation). Stakeholders need to be excited about the project as it is in motion, so that it maintains or increases its momentum.

Team members need to stay excited about what they are building. If you don’t have someone generating this excitement, it’s very easy for a project to lose momentum.

4. Measurable Deliverables

The human brain is not very well equipped to deal with uncertainty. Because of this, people absolutely must have a way to know how much of the project has been delivered and how close it is to being done.

How do you measure the work? Choose your project-relevant KPI. If you are writing a book, look at words/chapters written. If you are creating tooling software, look at number of delivered usable features/options/content. If you are creating usage-oriented products, measure number of engaged users, usage time per period, or something similar. Your specific product may have different KPIs than other projects, so you’ll have to pick one that makes sense. Choose a KPI that best aligns with your strategic goals.

There may be busy-work that doesn’t help move the project forward. If a piece of work doesn’t help the project’s goals, then it’s pure waste. Only delivered work that brings the project closer to completion should be counted. Definitionally, that’s the only progress that brings the project closer to completion.

There is nothing more exciting than seeing shots from a couple of weeks ago compared to what the project looks like now. That’s a momentum builder!

Seeing a thermometer fill a bit every day, or a bunch of sticky notes move across a board, or a number of items get crossed off of a finite checklist feels exciting! Everyone can feel how close the project is getting to completion, even if it still remains a long way off.

Project Health Diagnostic

Together, with the Iron Triangle, you have a full picture of both aspects of project health. Take a weekly look at time, cost, completed work scope, and remaining work scope.

You can see if the project is unhealthy by determining if any of its constraints have gone off the rails.

You can see if the project is healthy by looking at the project’s momentum, both socially and technically.

If people are more excited about the project, then you have gained social momentum. If people are less excited about the project, then you have lost social momentum. If more work was completed than in previous periods, then you have gained momentum. If less work was completed than in previous periods, then you have lost momentum. You don’t need to apply complex algorithms. It’s very simple.

If you can see the constraints and the momentum for a project at any point in time, then you know EXACTLY how the project is going, and, as a powerful bonus, you can accurately predict how the project will finish. Nothing is left to chance.

If you master this paradigm of mentally visualizing the project’s health, people will think you are a FORTUNE TELLER. This gives you a great track record which will open up fantastic new business opportunities!

Chapter Review Questions

  1. What is the best way to tell a project’s health?
  2. What are the two key components of healthy project momentum?
  3. What four ingredients are essential for building and maintaining momentum?