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How to Deal with a Tumbling Project

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You or your department may have an incredible project history with stellar achievements. However this does not mean that every project will succeed. Sometimes things simply do not work. Here is my take on how to deal with a tumbling project.

If you have read my previous articles, it will be no surprise to you to see that my first action is communication. Start with and go on with open communication. During any project, having your communications channels open is a must. Whether it is about carrying on a simple task, whether it is about deciding on the next action or whether it is delivering bad news, it is always easier when you have open communications. A project may also be tumbling just because the lack of communications and you may even have the chance to put everything back on track again.

With open communications, I really mean being open, up to the point of being the tough guy. When something goes wrong, many people, fearing to take the blame or be the one who blows the whistle, take cover. I want people to stand up, admit they did something wrong and accept the responsibility rather than crying like kindergarten children (to be frank, I believe that the people who do hide have not grown up despite their age). I want people to stand up and say that the department X have not completed the task. That simple, that open.

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Sometimes projects seem to go smoothly when they are not.There are warning signs which are easily ignored, such as increasing levels of stress, simple tasks taking longer than they should etc.. As soon as you spot these signs, step in and communicate with people. A little discussion on the issues may reveal a small roadblock but they may also reveal that the project is not moving as intended. In any case, you will get a grasp on things6

Speaking about people, we cannot go on without discussing the politics. There are the project items, costs, materials and there are the people and the politics. If there is something wrong with the IT guy, if somebody is trying make things harder or the tension is rising between the project members, you can suspect conflicting political views. You always have to keep an eye on the people and their politics, of course not with them.

When you spot signs and see that things are likely to go wrong, you have to prepare alternatives and exit plans. Consider your alternatives by thinking about the project outcomes. What does the project want to achieve as the end result? Is the project about implementing a customer relationship management (CRM) application and things are going downhill? What about considering an online alternative?

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The exit plans are where you wear your life jacket and abandon the ship. When a captain orders to abandon the ship, he does not do it arbitrarily. He means that he is sure that the crewmembers have done their best to keep the vessel afloat and there is nothing left to do. The same goes with the projects. Have your evaluation times and evaluation points and involve the project members and stakeholders in the evaluations. If the evaluations warrant that the project is going downhill and it is everybody’s best interest to stop it, then do it and avoid future losses (and any other unpleasant situations).

Don’t be afraid to pull the plug when the time comes. People do not want to be the one who puts an end to things. They think that it will look bad, it will stick the failure on themselves and, of course the decision will put the responsibility on them. If the time comes when the project is not going forward and has become a resource drainer, have the courage to pull the plug to avoid wasting future resources.

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If you decide to stop the project, look what you can salvage. Is it an investment, a product, a by-product, a business process? Anything that you can put into future use can be salvaged. Having a project failed does not mean that it is 100% bad. It means that there are a lot of things learned and a lot of things that can be further used.

We have a tendency to walk away when something fails – it may be a project or a relationship. We need to resist this feeling and analyze what really has happened. Before you put the end mark on your project, talk with the project members when their memories are fresh and try to surface what really caused the project to fail. In almost all cases the things learned from one failed project saves many future projects. Don’t forget, experience is the most expensive thing in the world.

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