Seven Techniques For Handling Project Failures

Jaclyn Crawford Foresight, Leadership, Management Leave a Comment

One must fail to survive, and thus adapt to failing

Let me be perfectly clear: You are going to fail. If you do not, you are not going to survive. Every business owner needs to push the envelope. We need to develop new products, new services, new partnerships and new delivery mechanisms. With innovation comes the harsh reality of failure.

Triumph is in the hands of leaders who build a culture and team that manages and adapts to the problems. There are some basic processes and techniques that we can employ to steer clear of mishaps, but knowing how to divert failure while it is in the process of happening is the real skill. It minimizes the bureaucracy of process, making the organization nimble.

First, Failure Prevention

“A stitch in time saves nine” has never been more applicable. Managing scope, documenting decisions and giving stakeholders what they need (rather than what they want) will keep a project on track from the start. Be firm on the scope, but understand that changes will be required. We cannot control change—we manage it.

Three parameters control a project: scope, schedule and budget. We can set two of those attributes, but the project manager will tell us the other. Try to edict all three, and we have the definition of a failure in waiting.

Of course, be wary of technology as a solution. Without a doubt it makes almost anything more efficient. However, before applying it, have the right people and the proper processes in place; otherwise, it will get you into trouble just as badly as before, only more quickly and efficiently.

Second, Acknowledge the Problem
“Triumph is in the hands of leaders who build a culture and team that manages and adapts to the problems..”Todd Williams
Denial is the biggest problem in trying to solve any project’s issues. The passion that develops around our work blinds us to the realities of what we can do. We always think we can make it better in just a couple more weeks.  Too often we cannot. We need to continually reevaluate the capabilities and our goals. The culture we build needs to be acceptant of our limits, open to suggestions and willing to step aside while others take charge. It is like any other 12-step process—the first step is to admit we are powerless and need help. Whether there are six or 11 steps that follow is dependent solely on the experience of the people we ask for help.

Third, Audit Projects

Too many project managers are overly passionate about their project. They root for it like a high-school cheerleader. Their job, however, is to be objective and passionately dispassionate about the project—focused on whether it is on track and the benefits are going to be achieved. We must continually be auditing our projects to determine whether they are meeting their goals. If they are not, it is the project manager’s responsibility to alert those who need to know.

Fourth, Analyze the Data and Develop Solutions

The answer to a project’s issues is in the team. Talk to them, learn from them and be part of them. Never take ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for an answer: Get the explanation and vet it with the team. Even though you may not understand it, the team will. A leader’s job is to facilitate the discussion.

Blame is counterproductive. Assigning blame does not fix the problem. It creates more issues and has no place in a fast-moving, highly innovative company. It breeds mistrust, destroys teams and creates a defensive environment. When we truly analyze a problem, we will find there is no one to blame; rather, it takes more than one individual to really “mess something up.”

Fifth, Identify Root Causes and Deploy Changes Effectively

Data hold the answer. Numbers are truthful little bastards. I always say, “Squeeze them hard enough, and they will tell you the truth. It is integral to their job.” Once we identify the root cause of an issue, we then have something to solve as opposed to continually masking problems with toupees and lipstick. People are quick to provide a solution; help them to figure out if it is the correct solution.

RescueProblemProjectSixth, Select the Correct Methodology

“We have always done it that way” is the mantra of the person lacking the drive and imagination to build something new and innovative. This mentality keeps companies like mine in business and stagnates their own companies. There is no shortage of stupid people continuing to do stupid things. Ruthlessly remove processes that were put into place for processes’ sake. Cut through bureaucracy. Cancel unproductive meetings. Adapt to the needs of the project; after all, projects are unique by definition.

Seventh, Negotiate the Solution

Project recovery requires change. The actions needed to bring an out-of-control project back in line necessitate stakeholder involvement to modify the scope, schedule, budget or some combination of the three to meet the needs of the organization. This requires negotiation skills that facilitate understanding the stakeholders and our own needs and wants. If a project is in trouble, we are probably going to have to limit the scaled-down project to the needs, while the wants go on the wish list. Identify the key people affected by the areas that require change, and negotiate the solution with them. Negotiate a win-win solution, and move forward with execution.

Embracing Failure

Innovation does not happen as planned. It takes planning and adaptability based on data accrued along the way. Any successful business owner knows that the key to success is a company culture that is tolerant of failure and acceptant of change. Rooted in this is the ability to see when problems arise and rallying the troops to develop the best solution. As leaders, if we define the goals and build the right team, they will be our vehicle to success. Integral to this is our ability to lead them though, around and past the inevitable failures. Triumph comes when we can turn failure into success.


ToddCWilliams-2011-BustTodd C. Williams is Founder and President of eCameron Inc., which makes companies “initiative ready.” He has more than 25 years of experience in recovering failing projects, preventing their failure and applying those lessons to help other organizations fulfill their strategic goals. He has helped his clients through strategic planning facilitation, setting up and running operations, IT leadership and as an expert witness.

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