So your project tanked. Now what?

So your project tanked. Now what?

I received a mail the other day from a reader who had a project “fail” and was concerned how that affected his reputation. I thought it was a great question, so I’m going to share my thoughts here.

First of all, I believe “failed” is a very subjective term. If you’re going to talk about projects, “troubled”, “challenged” or “cancelled” are all valid terms to indicate projects that didn’t go well, or were terminated. “Failed” suggests that no value of any kind was derived from the work (not even lessons learned), and that the project couldn’t meet even the loosest of arbitrary satisfaction criteria. It doesn’t matter how catastrophic a project was…some benefit is always gleaned, even if it’s just the spare parts that were left over after it blew up in your face. To say the project “failed” denies that any good that came from the work.

Arrgghh!!

Image courtesy of tankgirlrs on Flickr

There’s another thing about “failed”: to me, it indicates a very damaging state-of-mind. In a troubled project environment, it’s unlikely we’ll achieve every single objective we’ve set for the project. Sometimes, we have to compromise and settle. That’s not ideal of course, but if that’s what it takes to keep the project going, then that’s what we have to do.

Under these conditions, it’s easy for a project manager to over-identify with their work. If we keep telling ourselves we “failed” to achieve a particular objective, how long before we start to feel like failures? A PM who identifies as a failure will not be a positive influence on their project…indeed, they may unwittingly sabotage it. This is a case where it’s important to stick to the facts and not let emotion overtake one’s viewpoint.

I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture here, just trying to maintain perspective. We find strength and talent in adversity that we don’t find under sunny conditions. As such, a project manager who has had nothing but 100% success is not a project manager I want to hire. A perfect success rate could indicate many things, but mostly (to me, anyway), it indicates that the project manager has never been truly tested. If a project manager has never had a project run into trouble, what confidence do I have that he or she will know what to do if the rubber of the project I give them hits the road? I need to know that the person I hire is both capable of making hard choices, and able to see a tough project through to the bitter end.

Not all aspects of a project environment are under our control. Corporate policies change midflight, as do business needs, the economy, legislation…even the underlying market on which our organization is founded. A change to any one of those things (and more) during the course of our projects and we can find ourselves fiercely backpedalling trying to re-organize our work to reflect the need du jour. When a project begins, not even the best risk manager can foresee every possible contingency. As a hiring manager, I need to know that the PM I bring in can handle whatever punches the project has to offer.

So I want project managers with battle scars.

Frustration

Image courtesy of striatic on Flickr

As for how to present oneself in the aftermath of a troubled or cancelled project?

Focus on the positive. Even if you just showed up every day, took responsibility and tried to keep things going, you did a great thing. But likely there were other things you did that improved the project outlook. Perhaps you kept morale high. Perhaps you shielded your staff from unwanted interruptions. Maybe your reporting was crystal clear and that’s why the project was cancelled, because it was the most logical course of action in the face of all the facts.

No matter how bad things went, surely there were places where your skill and talent as a project manager shone through. Find those, and talk about those.

But don’t stop there.

The stark reality of projects is, there is no good or bad: there are only consequences and results.

During the course of your troubled project, you likely made decisions that had unwanted results. That’s not a crime. It’s a rare person who goes into a project with intent to do harm. However, it’s important to understand why you got the results that you did. The next time you’re in a similar situation, you may find yourself about to make the same decision…so how will you prevent that from happening?

Those are the other things you want to talk about. What did you learn, and how does that make you stronger?

To be perfectly honest, the best interviews I’ve ever had were those where I had the opportunity to talk about troubles I ran into, and what I took away. Those make the best stories, and besides often being highly entertaining, are things your interviewer will likely be able to relate to.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is…embrace your past challenges. Learn from them and love them. They’ll reap huge rewards.

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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  • Laura Bamberg

    Your point about take-aways was a good one. If your project failed because you utterly just messed it up, then you SHOULD feel like a failure. But if it failed due to forces beyond your control (such as changing corporate policy) then entirely blaming someone else is not the right answer. Consider how you handled that change and don’t make the same mistake next time.

  • Heya Laura! Thanks for the comment! 🙂

    Mistakes happen all the time. What’s important is to make sure that a mistake doesn’t happen the same way twice. You’re absolutely right.

    I want to be careful about advocating that a person should feel like a failure under any circumstances. I know project managers who are truly terrible, but can’t see how their decisions have actively damaged their projects, even when you spell it right out for them…these are people I want to slap. They also won’t see themselves having been responsible for their project’s downfall.

    But those who tend to take an overly appropriate sense of responsibility generally make amazing PMs by virtue of who they are–and they’re also the ones most likely to suffer from over-identification with their work. These are the people I worry will say “I’m a failure” and give in to distorted thinking, despite most excellent efforts.

  • Great post Geoff!

    I found myself in a similar situation and the problem is that in the aftermath, when all the moves have been made, you always have the feeling that you could have done more (or at least different). It’s not just a feeling: you know exactly what you would do differently. The problem is also that this epiphany comes when everything is over 🙁 I guess it is called experience 🙂

    So, when it comes to “Shoulda coulda woulda”, I agree that there is no point in beating the dead horse. Learn from it and move on. People are often surprised when they realize that others (including their peers and superiors) do not see them as failures even though they see themselves as such. What is more probable: one person being right, or everybody else?

  • Great post Geoff!

    I found myself in a similar situation and the problem is that in the aftermath, when all the moves have been made, you always have the feeling that you could have done more (or at least different). It’s not just a feeling: you know exactly what you would do differently. The problem is also that this epiphany comes when everything is over 🙁 I guess it is called experience 🙂

    So, when it comes to “Shoulda coulda woulda”, I agree that there is no point in beating the dead horse. Learn from it and move on. People are often surprised when they realize that others (including their peers and superiors) do not see them as failures even though they see themselves as such. What is more probable: one person being right, or everybody else?

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