How to Cope When the Project You’re Leading Fails
A failed project makes you look bad, costs the company significant time and money and puts client relations at risk. In some cases, a fear of failure can create a toxic workplace or create strained personal relationships as work stress stays with you outside the office.
While everyone fails, there’s little to no training on how to do it well or even how to learn from the experience. As a result, most project managers are left denying their involvement, blaming others and pushing their mistakes under the rug. It’s time to face failure head on and learn how to handle it gracefully when the project you’re leading isn’t going as planned.
Project Failure Is More Common Than You Think
The first step to handling failure gracefully is to realize that it is more common that most of us want to admit.
The team at PM Logic curated a project management statistics to better understand why projects fail and how common it is for this to happen. Even though most people like to believe they have a perfect record, the vast majority of projects aren’t completely successful:
One third of all projects were completed on time and on budget last year.
For every $1 billion invested in the projects across America, $122 million is wasted because the project performance and execution was subpar.
One-third of projects fail because of lack of help from senior management.
80 percent of PM executives say they can’t see how various projects align with their company business strategy.
There are many ways to define a failed project, writes Michael O'Brochta, president at management consultancy Zozer. Some don’t meet the needs of customers or clients, others go over budget and miss deadlines. Still others may not meet their original objectives. Even if you complete a project, its excessive costs and production delays could make it a failure in your company’s eyes.
Throughout your career, you are bound to face failure. How you handle your mistakes and failed projects will tell people more about who you are then how you celebrate your successes.
Admit When It is Time to Kill the Project
In the same way that no one wants to admit defeat, no one wants to kill a project. As a result, most projects go on for months longer than they should. One of the main reasons people do this is because of the sunk cost fallacy.
“The sunk cost effect is the general tendency for people to continue an endeavor, or continue consuming or pursuing an option, if they’ve invested time or money or some resource in it,” explains Christopher Olivola, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. “That effect becomes a fallacy if it’s pushing you to do things that are making you unhappy or worse off.”
Olivola uses the example of a romantic relationship to illustrate sunk cost. The longer a couple has been together, the harder it is to break up because of the time, memories and emotional connections built together. In a project, this manifests itself in PMs adding more resources and time and energy for something that needs to be killed.
People also avoid killing projects because ego plays such a big role in the modern workforce.
“Organizations are so reluctant to kill doomed projects because the internal team — product owners and their bosses — will have a permanent scar associated with their name," Umair Aziz, chief innovation and technology officer at Creative Chaos, tells CIO. "They were the champions behind the idea, and probably spent a decent amount of political capital to get the necessary budget and autonomy approvals."
This is why companies keep putting time and money into a project that is going nowhere. Deciding that a project has failed means employees have failed and their judgement on what is a good or bad idea is considered off.
If you want to be an effective project manager you need to know when to stop a failing project. To do this, Jim Schleckser CEO of the Inc. CEO Project, says you should ask the question: "What must be true for this project to be successful?” Every CEO or PM needs to review the answers to that question before agreeing to move forward with a project. In most cases, teams will list items regarding budget, timeline and expectations. If the team can meet all of the criteria, then the project moves forward.
Schleckser uses the example of a product aimed at college students, priced above the going market rate. Since it’s very possible that most college students won’t or can’t pay that much, a project manager may determine that the project should not move forward.
Review Exactly Why the Project Failed
Once a project is dead, take a step back to clearly understand where it got derailed. The team at Clarizen emphasizes the importance of taking a hard look at what went wrong and why. It is tempting to find a scapegoat or identify outside factors that contributed to the project failure, but there were likely steps you could have taken to limit the damage. You are likely to make similar mistakes if you don’t identify the problems and provide solutions before your next project.
As you conduct this review, look for warning signs that the project was about to fail. Most project managers are trained to identify warning signs of instability. These signs include multiple missed deadlines, barriers to completion and a lack of resources.
Project managers who are proactive in looking for warning signs can help prevent failure early on, says Sarmad Hasan at task management software provider TaskQue. The sooner you identify the warning signs, the sooner you can provide solutions and prevent disaster.
For example, as a project heads down the path of failure, fewer people will be willing to jump in and help out, explains Moira Alexander, founder of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She cites reduced project buy-in as one of the main signals that a project is getting off track. Less risk-averse team members will initially be willing to help out, but the more people start backing away, the likelier your project is in hot water.
Avoid Bias When Reviewing Why the Project Failed
As you conduct your post-project review, try to take into account the biases you may have that skew your results. You may even want to hire an outside firm to audit your processes and offer clear reasons underlying the failure of a project.
It’s not uncommon for people to ignore uncomfortable facts and look for alternative solutions. This is considered bias in decision-making. Psychologist Christopher Dwyer explains a number of biases that affect how we view problems and the people around us, a few of which include:
Confirmation bias. This is where you look for information that confirms your existing beliefs.
Self-serving bias. This is where any positive outcome is our own doing, but any negative outcome is the result of other people or outside forces.
In-group bias. This where you tend to be nicer to yourself and people in your group, which means you look to place blame and negative actions on those outside of your circle.
The backfire effect. This is where you hold onto an idea or plan even tighter upon hearing that it is wrong or not going to work.
Another bias that plagues project managers in particular is that of optimism. Optimism bias is the belief that everything will work out fine and PMs don’t need to leave too much extra space for caution because the project will surely go well.
Human brains are wired to take the easy way out, and most people will use biases to ignore blind spots where they make mistakes or where their coworkers could have prevented problems. Morven Fulton at professional services firm PwC Australia explains that these biases prevent PMs from planning accurately and leave teams unprepared when something does go wrong. Not only can biases hurt you during the review process, they can also set up future projects for failure.
Identify Your Role in the Project’s Failure
As a project manager, people look to you as leader and will place the blame on you when something goes wrong. And you do need to take the blame — but only to a certain extent.
“The PM should not be a martyr taking on all blame no matter who was responsible,” Brad Egeland at AEC Software writes. “Nobody really likes a martyr who takes the weight of everything on their shoulders, but nobody in their right mind is going to follow a PM who finger points when issues arise.”
Indeed, good leaders “pull the thumb before they point the finger,” says Ron Gibori at marketing, branding and strategy agency Idea Booth. They look to see what they did wrong and how they might have acted to help. Great leaders not only review what was done, they use those mistakes as an opportunity to improve infrastructure, train team members, and prevent the same errors from happening again.
Mark Price Perry of BOT International agrees. He cites the old adage that “95 percent of the problem is the process, five percent is the people” when it comes to to project failure. Your team can beat itself up looking for a scapegoat and problems within your staff, or it can focus on getting work done in a way that is effective and replicable in the future.
Take Steps to Approach the Next Project Differently
Failing is painful. However, the more you learn how to handle failure gracefully, the likelier you are to learn from your mistakes and move forward in a way that encourages leaders and team members to trust you.
“If you are a perfectionist, you can still pursue your best work,” Jason Grills at Innovation Management writes. “Rather than channeling your efforts into making a perfect product, try instead to focus on a perfect execution of the project itself.”
As a PM, there are things that are out of your control, but improving the project execution process can help you limit project failure caused by your team. While this project might have failed, the next can be executed flawlessly.