When projects don’t go to plan, they can end up failing. The project starts running behind and over budget. This post assesses the ways that this might happen and guides you through solutions.
It’s a fact of life: projects don’t go to plan.
Sometimes, that’s ok—but often, when they don’t go to plan, they can end up failing. The project starts running behind and over budget, the client gets mad and doesn’t like the work, and no one’s really sure where it went wrong, or where to go from here.
It’s always easy to find people to blame, and it can sometimes seem impossible to pinpoint the real reasons why a project has failed. So often it’s the perfect storm: a combination of problems with the project team, the timeline, the budget, the scope and of course, the client’s unrealistic expectations.
So how do we stop projects that don’t go to plan from failing? To guide you, this article explores 5 key elements of a successful project management approach that can steer your next project far away from failure—and get you back on track when your project has already begun to go off the rails.
Dive into the details
We all want to stay focused on the big picture strategy, but first we can’t neglect to take care of the small stuff. Truth is, you can’t fix a failing project unless you know it’s failing in the first place. And you won’t know your options for fixing it unless you’ve got the data.
But monitoring and controlling projects isn’t very sexy. The idea of fretting about those pesky little details surrounding the allocated durations for tasks might feel like it will stifle everyone’s creativity and enthusiasm for the project. And you don’t want to be overreacting to every little change with a trail of expletives and a vein popping out of your forehead, do you?
Here, we’re talking about a different definition of sweating the small stuff. In this definition, it means maintaining control over your projects by making it your job to know what’s happening on the project at every level.
Why? Because paying attention to the small stuff before it becomes big stuff is how you prevent minor, nearly undetectable issues from ballooning into project-halting problems. It provides the visibility you need to pivot the project before it’s too late.
We can’t initiate a plan to get our failing project back on track unless we understand the parameters we’ve got to work within—that’s why knowing the project details at a granular level is so important.
The Digital Project Manager School offers a good framework for maintaining control over your projects so you can routinely identify and act upon potential issues.
- Assess: find out what’s happening beneath the project’s surface by analyzing the project data.
- Plan: see where things are going before they get there; make new plans to account for changes.
- React: make decisions about how to react when things change. Work out and communicate the options.
- Connect: see the big picture, spot the gaps, and help everyone connect on the same page.
- Follow up: keep your team and clients in the loop by sending friendly updates and reminders.
The key takeaway: Prevent failure by making it part of your routine to get into the details of the project budget, timeline and tasks. Knowing exactly where the project is at will then allow you to more easily and confidently course-correct as soon as minor issues arise.
Realign on success
To fix a failing project, you’re going to need to pivot. Sometimes we can get so caught up in our passion for the thing that we said we’d make that we focus only on that: we want to make the thing right.
When we hit challenges, we just try harder.
But you won’t get things back on track by simply putting your head down to focus single-mindedly on making a better version of whatever you’re making. Pressing the gas pedal to put more power behind your failing project is only a good plan if you’re already headed down exactly the right road already—and our project data tells us you’re probably not.
Understanding the definition of success that underpins your projects may seem obvious. However, many times when our projects spiral out of control and grow legs of their own, it's because we got caught up in that thing we said we’d do, diverting our focus from why we’re doing it.
So above all, it’s time to hit the reset button on defining success. You have to understand what you, your team, your project, and your clients are driving for—and why. With that focus and knowledge, you’ll be able to explore different ways of achieving those goals.
Realigning on the project's purpose will help you guide the client (and your team) to pivot the project without compromising on its purpose. Only after you fully understand what success means for client, your agency, and your team should you begin to translate your understanding of success into a refreshed delivery strategy.
The key takeaway: Refine your focus on making the right thing—the thing that’s going to provide the most value isn’t going to feel like a compromise to your client. With a renewed focus on success, you’ll be able to realign your efforts on making the thing right.
Make a new plan
When a project starts going wrong, the failure to pivot quickly enough is often what causes the project to ultimately fail. While everyone agrees something’s not quite right, the challenge of knowing exactly how to pivot can sometimes be a crippling challenge to the team. Inertia sets in, and a bad situation just gets worse.
But if we don’t react quickly and appropriately, it’ll impact the entire project. And the longer we wait, the fewer options we’ll have to pivot. So we’ve got to make a plan, and make it fast. Just because we don’t know what the future will bring, doesn’t mean we can’t make a plan today. We can make some headway and then course-correct as needed along the way.
You’ve got to start by being confident in your team and your plan. If you don’t really believe in your plan, or in the project’s likelihood to succeed, you need to change the plan!
We have to embrace the fact that our new plan is likely to be imperfect. In fact, we’ll probably have to revise it many times throughout the project. Even so, with a clear understanding of success, it can help us get the project moving again in the right direction.
Winston Churchill famously said, “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan”. We need to embrace the imperfection of project planning by continually refining the plan. As much as the plan itself matters, what’s also key is that a new plan gives the team a new sense of purpose and direction.
The key takeaway: Make a plan to get the team moving in the right direction. Embrace the imperfection of project planning and use it as a tool to give the team fresh vision, direction and hope of success.
Understand, and be understood
We all know communication is important. When getting your projects back on track, are you focused on understanding the client and making sure you’re being understood?
I’m sure you can think of a few instances where lack of clarity, specificity, or critical information caused your project to suffer. Too often, project failures boil down to a simple lack of communication. Your client says one thing, you understand another thing, and then six months down the road, you’ve produced something that doesn’t align with their expectations.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, because you’re constantly pinging your team and clients, that your communication is great. You might be transmitting messages, but are they being received as you intended?
Particularly when you’re working hard to turn your project around, watch out for the assumption that because your volume of communication is high, then you must be doing a good job in communicating. Make it your goal to be understood and to communicate simply. In getting things back on track it’s all too easy to avoid the difficult conversations and compensate with a messy trail of assumptions, hints, and general back-and-forth later on. Keeping it straightforward will make the process of getting it back on track much simpler.
- Minimize assumptions.
- Set expectations.
- Watch for communication breakdowns.
- Do frequent check-ins.
- Make a communications plan part of your project plan.
The key takeaway: Yes, strategy is important. Having a detailed, actionable plan is important. But without communication to keep all of the expectations, progress, and changes in sync, you’re in for a rough ride. Make an ongoing effort to improve your communication so that you’re understood clearly.
Go the extra mile
The final piece of the puzzle is you. Your strong, positive leadership can be the “make or break” in a getting your project back on track.
I don’t have to tell you this. All of us already believe that good leadership is a valuable, desirable, positive thing. But our positive thinking must be followed by positive doing. If you want to succeed big, then start by trying for a small victory. Nothing encourages hope like success.
If your team senses defeat they give as little as possible, look for excuses, grow tired, forsake the game plan, and hurt others. But if you are able to win small victories, it encourages you. It raises morale. When you experience a win even just once, you begin to understand how it works. You get better at succeeding, and after winning several victories you begin to sense that bigger victories are nearly within your grasp. So find some small victories.
Beyond endorsing the notion of leadership, you have to take concrete actions that demonstrate leadership. Start by making sure that you’re leading your team to get things back on track effectively.
- Provide a clear vision
- Have a realistic, well planned timeline
- Write detailed briefs
- Set up tasks and deadlines
- Schedule daily check-ins
- Anticipate and meet your team’s needs
These tasks are all about empowering your team and enabling them to do their best work. Forcing compliance through demands is certainly a way of getting people do what is required. However, in an already high pressure environment, this is unlikely to help. Creating an environment of empowerment is what truly defines a leader.
The key takeaway: Empower your team by giving them hope and providing them with the information they’ll need to do a good job. Go the extra mile for your team so that they can be the best version of themselves.
Where do you go from here?
Simply put, leading projects well isn’t easy. Mastering the art of project management takes time and experience. You’ll have some failures and some wins, and you’ll learn many lessons for yourself.
You don’t have to learn all of the lessons for yourself, however.
The Digital Project Manager School is a great place to build your fundamental PM skills. We offer an online digital project management course to provide PM training for people who lead teams and deliver projects in the digital world.
Our expert-led course program offers plenty of useful resources, such as project management templates and opportunities for participants to get their questions answered in webinars with PM experts.
If your projects are failing and you don’t know where to start, get help! We’ve all been there.
With the right tools, you can save any project from failure—and make sure future projects stay on track from start to finish.