We’ve all been there at least once. The moment you get that phone call or email, and the project first turns the corner, and starts on the downward spiral to failure. What do you do? What is the best course of action when projects start to fail?
Unfortunately professional project managers, regardless of knowledge, experience, or background, all experience failure from time to time…and we hate it. While we can’t always predict failure or avoid it, there are tactics we can do to help it. Some of these tactics include some of what we already know, such as putting together risk response and management plans, holding regular team planning meetings, and practicing good document control.
A project is considered a failure when it has not delivered what was required, in line with expectations. Therefore, in order to succeed, a project must deliver to cost, to quality, and on time; and it must deliver the benefits presented in the business case.
The requirements for success are clear and absolute – right? Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Because the second part of our definition of success is that the project must be delivered "in line with expectations."
If key stakeholders agreed that a project had to exceed its initial budget, the project may still be considered a success. Likewise, if a project delivered everything that was in the detailed project designs, it may still be considered a failure if it didn't include vital elements that the key stakeholders needed. This doesn't seem fair, but project success and failure isn't just about the facts, nor is it simply about what was delivered. It's also, crucially, about how the project is perceived.
Here are some best courses of action on how project managers can deal with failing projects
1. Don’t Panic.
When you receive a problematic email or phone call from a customer, team member, or sales rep, the first thing you should not do is panic. This can be difficult, especially if the person on the other line or that has written the email is emotional in some way. Your response should be calm and address the situation.
If you don’t have a solution right at that moment, at least respond to the email or phone call and let him or her know that you are looking into the situation and will get back to them as soon as possible. If needed, take a time out and go for a walk to help clear your mind. While you may think it’s not the best time to take a walk, giving yourself a minute to calm down and think about the situation could be your best asset. Addressing the situation with a clear head and a fresh state of mind can really help.
2. Check the Schedule.
Once you have addressed the concerns, informed the customer, sales rep, and team, the next step should be addressing the schedule. What stage is the project at? Where is the project? How will this change impact the schedule in terms of project milestones and deliverables?
No commercial organization wishes for the public to know about its dirty laundry, especially if the public is funding the failed project. Yet, as in air crash investigations, it's important to understand the causes of the failure and the extent of the damage. Oftentimes, an independent body comes in to assess these factors.
Large organizations might appoint a highly experienced project manager to undertake the task of forensic analysis of the project wreckage. In order for the resulting report to be accurate, meaningful, and unbiased, the project manager must have a measure of independence.
Companies can't afford for project managers to defend themselves by revealing large-scale, high-level influences that cause problems beyond their control or predictive ability. Therefore, there may be huge pressure to shove the entire project under the carpet. Large-scale projects that fail carry more political implications, and hence, there may be a greater tendency to hide the results and to ignore the reasons behind them.
The single-point-responsibility approach to projects usually implies that the project manager is to blame for any shortfalls in the project's results. In other words, project managers should foresee problems and avoid them--or engineer a graceful "landing." Project managers commonly discover that most of the damage is to their reputation.
Benefits of the investigation
Wise corporations will be keen to learn in-house lessons about the cause of the failure and to determine whether it could have been avoided. Of course, the added cost and disruption of an investigation is only beneficial if the company bravely faces up to its errors and understands some complex answers. A detailed forensic analysis can actually pay for itself by making recommendations which, when subsequently implemented, avoid any recurrence of the underlying problems.
However hard it may be to deal with this investigative atmosphere, a major project collapse can educate and stiffen the resolve of the individual responsible for the errors. So much so that the individual never repeats the error, and the debacle becomes, if not a badge of honor, then at least evidence of the project manager's toughness.
There are other useful bits of information to gain from a disastrous project. For instance, in certain contexts, failure to create the desired result is useful knowledge. If the success indicators are well defined in advance, you won't be able to classify this type of project a failure. Although, all project managers know that a feature that starts as a "nice-to-have" can easily become "absolutely essential" in the eyes of the marketing department.
Learn from others' mistakes
Once a high-inertia project gets even slightly out of shape, you may need both firefighting and damage limitation skills to provide a rough landing rather than an outright disaster. When you look around at your most experienced colleagues, you'll find that almost all of them have had a pet project go belly up. Since these kind of unfortunate incidents often provide project managers with a valuable lesson, go ahead and take the time to ask them about their experiences.
4. Devise a Solution.
Once you have taken care of the first two items, now it’s time to put together a solution. Again, what is the concern at hand? How will it impact the schedule? How will it impact deliverables? Sometimes a solution cannot solve all three of these items. For instance, making a change in the late stage of a project may impact the schedule and risk on time delivery of a particular product, which could lead to an angry customer. However, it is best to work with the customer to see if negotiating on any level is possible.