How to Pro­fes­sion­ally Man­age a Failed Project

The Washington Post Sunday - - JOBS - This spe­cial ad­ver­tis­ing sec­tion was pre­pared by in­de­pen­dent writer De­bra Legg. The pro­duc­tion of this sec­tion did not in­volve the news or editorial staff of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

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 over­bud­get 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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