How to Professionally Manage a Failed Project

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Shortfall. Train wreck. Epic fail.

No matter the scope of the problem with a project, the fact is, you were entrusted with an effort important to your company and didn’t deliver. You fear a career-damaging ding on your permanent record.

These days, though, failure doesn’t necessarily mean the end. Unless there are instances of unethical, incompetent or illegal conduct, it’s possible to salvage your reputation and, sometimes, even the project. The keys are early identification and quick intervention. Here’s how.

Trust your gut

That feeling you get when you hit a patch of ice and your car starts skidding? We often experience those same emotions when a project is going sideways. Too often, we ignore this almost visceral reaction when we should instead investigate it.

Sometimes the first signs will literally be written all over people’s faces. You’ll see the staff start to stress. Enthusiasm will begin to flag.

Early delays are also a signal that something is amiss. Sometimes procrastination causes the hold-up, but remember that procrastination is often an avoidance mechanism rather than mere disorganization. Other times, delays happen because someone doesn’t have what’s needed to do the job, whether it’s funding, technology or information-flow from another department.

Stop and evaluate

Once your radar starts to twitch, stop and evaluate the project, looking at both interim deadlines and long-term prognosis. This lets you either solve problems before they snowball into failure or pull the plug early on a project that isn’t going to pan out, saving both time and money.

Most of us build interim deadlines into project checklists, but we seldom include evaluating continued viability. We're even less likely to incorporate off ramps that end the project if things aren’t proceeding as planned. These steps should be built into a project plan from the start, but if they aren’t, use that feeling of unease as an opportunity for re-evaluation.

“We need to talk”

Whether the relationship is personal or professional, those four words incite panic. Unfortunately, things will only get worse if no one utters them. Besides, if a project is flailing or failing, the principals know it even if they’re in optimistic denial or reticent to admit it.  It’s up to you to be the elephant in the room.

The first step—and this one is tricky if things are only beginning to go sideways—is getting past what Matthew McWha calls the “watermelon project”—looks nice on the outside but it’s a mess once you cut into it. Dig into the mess to identify speed bumps, be they budget, production delays or technological issues.

Once issues are identified, move to a toddler-esque fixation on the question of “why?” until you’ve drilled down to the true root of the problem. The key to this technique is not stopping until all principals agree that the final “why” has been identified.

Why is this project over budget? Because of unexpected costs in the supply chain. Why did these happen? Because we were relying on Company ABC and they jacked up the cost. Why isn't there a less expensive solution? Maybe there isn’t and the project is dead. Maybe there is, and you can regroup and proceed.

Recovery plan

Sometimes, late is just too late and over-budget is cost-prohibitive. Other times, the work still will have enough value to make continuing the project worthwhile.

In those situations, begin creating a recovery plan that includes conducting an assessment, analyzing findings and coming up with a new plan. If in-fighting or ineffective leadership were issues in the original project, it’s a good idea to bring in someone else on recovery planning.

These strategies apply whether you’re leading the overall project or in charge of one aspect. They’re also techniques you can use in designing your next project plan. If you’re going to manage an epic fail, you might as well benefit from the experience.

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