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Project Failure – Turn that Frown Upside Down

Author: Larry Chester

We’ve all had projects that failed.  Hopefully they were small projects, in which case the pain would be small as well.  But companies sometimes get into big projects that fail.  It might be a product launch, an acquisition, an ERP implementation, a bad hire.  Each of these, like many others, are time consuming, costly, resource hungry and cause a loss of confidence.  But the most important thing following a project’s failure is to identify what happened.  Analyze the steps that were involved in the project, and identify areas where things didn’t go as planned.     


You’ve decided that it failed.  Either it didn’t meet enough of your objectives, or everyone can clearly see that it was costly and accomplished nothing.  In either case, everyone needs to understand what went wrong.  Why?  Well, it’s not just to point fingers and assess blame.  It’s to understand what you need to do to keep it from happening again.  What are the issues that need to be addressed to bring any project successfully to the finish line?  Because even though every project is unique, there are common elements of Planning, Timeframe, Cost, Resources, and Commitment that enter into every one.   


The first step after any determination of “project failure” is a determination of whether there is an opportunity to fix what happened.  Don’t automatically declare a total loss.  Determine whether it is possible to give it a fresh start.  You’ve already done it once.  You missed your objective.  But you’ve learned some valuable lessons.  So, take a look at where you are right now, and determine if, with what you’ve learned, you can either start from the beginning again, or maybe you can start somewhere along the project’s timeline, pick it up at a critical point where things went wrong, and fix it from there.  Take a new path in the right direction. 


This is where all the pieces come together.  The dream, the people and the result.  What is it going to take to make it happen?  That plan has to take into account the four things that are needed on any project – Time, Money, Resources (People and Equipment) and Commitment.  There are a number of tools that you can use for planning.  Creating a GANTT or PERT chart should help you put together a plan that will fully update as you make changes to any items on the timeline. 


In this day of supply chain issues, the coordination of time is all important.  Projects can get to critical stages, and because a particular part or resource isn’t available, the entire project comes to a halt.  During the planning process, it’s important to not only understand how long it’s going to take to get resources to your facility, but assuring that you’re not just getting lip service is complex.  If you can, secure a critical part from two different sources, to assure that there’s an alternate available.   


This is more of an issue on longer term projects, where cost overruns or changes in banking conditions early in the project might affect the availability of cash later on.  Be sure that you either have the cash available from your own resources, or make sure that your bank is privy to all of your plans, so that they aren’t surprised when you come in with your requests.  Understand payment terms with each of your suppliers so that you aren’t surprised when a call comes in looking for payment.  Develop a cash flow forecast so that you have a complete understanding of your cash needs throughout the project.  You don’t want to run out of cash at a critical time.   

Resources – People and Equipment 

No project can be completed if you don’t have the resources that you need.  The tendency is to use in-house resources to get the job done.  But if you lack the expertise in-house, having someone learn a specialized skill might not be a good use of your time and staff.  Don’t be afraid to reach outside for an expert that has more experience in this area.  Their years of experience is worth a lot more in speedy accurate completion of the project than what you’re going to pay them.  Also, assuring that you have the correct equipment is going to make a big difference.  Outdated technology could doom a project before it gets off the ground.  Think about the long term payback for this project, and you’ll have an entirely different view of whether you should spend the money that you’re stalling on.  Don’t save a few bucks here and end up limiting the capability of the project overall. 


Stephen Covey said you’re “better off having an average strategy with superb execution than a superb strategy with poor execution.”  That’s where the commitment comes in.  It comes from the top.  If the CEO is ambivalent or doesn’t understand and care about the project, his or her emotional reaction will trickle down to the entire staff, and the success of your project will become problematic.  That emotional commitment needs to come from the top and the excitement for the project’s completion should flow through the company.  Without it, this critical project will either fail, or won’t meet the ultimate success you had expected.   


Companies regularly take on projects that have a broad impact.  If your planning process and execution is on the mark, then successful projects will be the company standard.  But even with the best planners and the finest execution, a project might fail.  Then it’s time for the staff to look into the reasons why.  It’s a good idea to evaluate every project upon completion, because there are always lessons to be learned. But if you have a project that doesn’t meet expectations, it’s time to dive in and see what happened.  These lessons are always painful to take, but reviewing each project with someone playing devil’s advocate, will likely shine a light on the problems at hand.   


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