9 Steps to Overcoming a Major Project Failure

When project failures occur, it’s easy to place blame. But in the process, we often forget a simple fact: “it doesn’t matter, we’re here now.” Here are nine steps for getting past the problem to a solution.

1. Stop drinking coffee. When a major problem occurs, your adrenaline will kick in, if you add caffeine to the mix, you will likely just compound the problem. What you need when a major issue occurs isn’t to think fast, but to think slow. You need to make a good decision despite the tension. (I learned this from a colleague of mine.)

2. Instill trust. People need to feel secure after a failure. They need to know that you don’t plan to fire them, but instead that you just want to solve the problem. If you get angry with someone, you will put them on the defense, and, as a result, make them nervous and difficult to work with. What you need in the moment of failure is everyone, and especially those who failed–they know more than anyone else about the problem. If you make people feel trusted and that you’re trustworthy, your chances of success are much higher.

3. Provide confidence. People need confidence when things get rough. They need someone who they know they can trust. You need to trust them; and they need to trust you. If you can instill belief, you will get through the problem.

4. Bring up your past failures. When you’re presented with a major failure, it doesn’t seem like a good time for a story, but it’s actually the best time. Chance has it that you have failed before (well, if you’re human), and now is the time to tell that story. By doing so, you will remind yourself and others that the problems you’re facing can be overcome, just like past ones were. This will also bring a human side to you as the leader, which will make people feel comfortable.

6. Be 100% project manager. When a major problem occurs, you need to remove as much emotion from the equation as possible. You want to gather as much data as you can, within your time constraints, and then run the data through an unbiased system. You are likely incapable of being unbiased in the moment of chaos, thus you need a system to help you remove the emotional tension. Can math get you to a solution? If so, use math. I usually employ a version of the critical path method when chaos ensues. It helps me prioritize and be unbiased.

7. Delegate. Once you know the critical path tasks, delegate them, give people ownership and authority to make decisions, and then make it happen. Don’t stop until all the critical path issues are handled.

8. Rotate the team. Critical path tasks don’t necessarily mean all hands on deck, because the problem may take so long that you need to send some people home to sleep while others work, and then rotate your schedules. A sleepy crew is likely to make more mistakes, and you don’t want to add injury to insult. Also, rested people are more effective.

9. Leave yourself off the task list. In the process of handling the problem you’re dealing with, you also want to be sure not to assign too many things to yourself. It’s better to add too much to someone else’s task list because you’re going to be answering questions until all the problems are overcome, and thus will be more busy than you anticipate.

The types of problems leaders deal with are bad enough on their own; we don’t need to make them worse by reacting poorly. What we need is discernment in difficult circumstances and the stamina to overcome them.

What are your tips for overcoming major project failures?

One Response to “9 Steps to Overcoming a Major Project Failure”

  1. Joel Wilcox February 23, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

    I appreciate this perspective on project failures because I’ve had many people manage them the wrong way, to my detriment. Similarly, I’ve managed projects poorly, generally by being a control freak and taking the full task (and blame) on myself. I like your points about delegating tasks, because I think distributed (dare I say “crowdsourced?”) solutions tend to fix problems better than one person’s panic. Ideally, I’d solve more of my problems by brainstorming than by acting on adrenaline and gut instinct.

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