Move Beyond a Failed Project

Projects that fail to meet objectives are certainly frustrating in the near term, but beware—if you aren’t diligent in determining the cause(s) of the failure and implementing effective solutions, you might find yourself repeating the same mistakes later, too. Growth as a project management consulting professional will come by peeling through the project’s layers to discover the real issues at the heart of the failure. You can then devise methods to address and prevent similar issues, thereby increasing your success on future projects.

Before beginning the process of moving beyond a failed project, it’s important to draw a clear distinction between problems and people. Allowing emotions or egos to blame someone for the project’s failure will do nothing to improve the team’s prospects for future success. Our interest here is in identifying the functional issues that contributed materially to the project’s failure. It’s true those issues may eventually circle back to personnel, but it will generally be in the form of inadequate staffing levels, an inefficient hierarchy structure, or lack of expertise within the project management team. If individual performance issues are identified during the process, they should be dealt with separately (and privately).

Turning a failed project into future success requires asking the right questions. For each phase of the process, we’ll cover an array of questions designed to put you on the right path.

Your first step after a failed project is to identify the problem(s). Look carefully at the project’s objectives, and then study the progression from planning through execution. Identify where the problem first appeared, along with any potential triggers. Common root causes include lack of resources (including funds, staffing, and availability of outside vendors), improper or inadequate scoping, and a failure to sufficiently communicate small glitches before they snowballed into significant problems.

Questions to ask: At what point in the project did the problem begin? Was there a single root cause, or several working in concert? Did subsequent actions (or inaction) contribute to the failure?

Next, you must devise solutions to address these problems, and work to improve processes. Once your project management team is clear on the problem’s root cause(s), it’s time to formulate workable solutions and aggressively vet each for potential side effects. If functional changes require outside support or approval, take your team-crafted ideas up the chain for the necessary buy-in. This approach is generally preferred, as it eliminates the common problem of “externally” devised solutions that have all the necessary approval, but won’t actually work in the long run.

Questions to ask: Is a cumbersome or inefficient organizational structure contributing to the issue? Are responsibility levels (signature, supervisory, etc.) appropriate? Have communications occurred in a timely manner, and to/from the right people? Have you had sufficient stakeholder involvement and support? Were outside factors adequately accounted for during the planning and budgeting phases?

Once you have solutions in place, it’s time to apply the lessons learned to future projects. Along with normal milestone updates, consider incorporating additional checks and balances to ensure the solutions you devised have effectively resolved the problems. Build in frequent trigger points that prompt the team to evaluate progress, and scrutinize the problem areas closely for signs of trouble. Addressing and resolving small-scale issues will generally lead to greater success than trying to tackle an entrenched problem that’s already causing widespread mayhem.

Questions to ask: What signposts of the original problem did the team miss? What should we watch for to ensure the problem doesn’t repeat itself? Have we inadvertently swapped one problem for another? Is anything occurring within the project framework that might impact our ability to meet this project’s objectives?

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