Planning, focusing on outcomes, and great communication will get you a long way in delivering projects on-time and on-schedule, but inevitably you will encounter a project where you lose control of your time, resources disappear, and the project is completely out of control.
We don’t have to look too far to see examples of out of control projects in the public or private sector. The news is filled with all sorts of examples like the Seattle tunnel project, the healthcare.gov project, or the refurbishing of Wrigley Field in Chicago.
All of these projects share one thing in common: they all got sidetracked. Why this happened isn’t as important as how to get back on track. It is just good to know that even the most well-run projects have moments when they had challenges to overcome, just the same as poorly run projects.
So understanding that every project can get into trouble can be helpful…it’s how you deal with it that is the most important thing.
Accept Sunk Costs
To get your projects back on track, the first thing you must do is realize that no matter where you find yourself, you aren’t going to recoup any time, resources, or energy that have already been invested in creating the mess that the project is in. In fact, there is a term for these kind of sink holes of resources: sunk costs.
The fact is that it is really difficult to admit that you made an error in investment, in tactics, or in focus. The natural reaction of a team leader or key stakeholder is going to be to find a way to recoup the investments and somehow “save” them, but the truth is that once an investment is made, the investment is made. Good or bad.
So when you are faced with an off track project, the first think you need to do is understand that anything you have done to this point is done and over with. You aren’t going to “make up for lost time” or “recover” the money or time you spent.
This means that common solutions like making more investments of time and money under the premise of “saving” the project may be unwise. The best thing you can do is stop and think, understanding that every decision made going forward needs to be based on the likelihood of success from this point forward and not from the potential of recouping any previous expenditures and investments.
So, first, realize you can’t do anything about these sunk costs and that sometimes you just have to move on and make a new decision.
Reevaluate Your Plan
Next, take a step back and reevaluate your plan. You are going to see late deadlines, goals and objectives that are likely not anywhere near completion, and other disheartening facts. But in the same way that you can’t recover sunk costs, you can’t roll back the clock to a time when you would meet your deadlines or reach your milestones at the planned time.
As the leader of this team, it is likely that you are facing unhappy stakeholders, disillusioned team members, and questioning your own ability to reach your goals. In these instances, it is important to slow down and take a few steps to establish a path forward for the project.
The best action you can take is re-evaluate your plan and lay out some new targets that are realistic within the true state of the project.
One of the big challenges of Healthcare.gov, was that the project became a public relations disaster and one of the primary causes was that until relatively late in the project, goals and expectations seemed to be a moving target for the project team and the government had set hard deadlines that were quickly viewed as unrealistic or were altered to meet the changing circumstances of the project. In either circumstance, this led to many people having little faith in the ability of the project to be completed successfully.
Communication is Key
Finally, communicate and, then, communicate some more. When government projects go off track, it seems like the first reaction is to try to hide the failure from view. In Seattle, the tunnel project has been filled with voids in communication. The same thing happened with healthcare.gov and President Obama’s declarations of support for the project became a political weight for him to bear.
In both situations, the best course of action would have been to communicate the situation, provide details of the plan to move forward to all relevant parties, and continue with the new plan until they got to the point that they had new, better information to share.
When managing your projects, you should always keep in mind that if there is a hole in your communications, something or someone is going to fill it and you aren’t likely to enjoy what is said.
What to Do if a Project is Doomed?
It’s nothing you want to happen, but sometimes a project is going to fail, and you need to have made precautions for such situations. Take for example, sunk costs. There comes a time when the investment is not equal to the return and you have to make the tough decision to pull the plug. No one wants to admit failure, however, it’s always better to end a project before that project becomes a financial black hole and can potentially bring down the whole business.
Of course, before you take the drastic step to end a project before it has reached completion, you’ll want to do the due diligence. That includes, not only working out the strain on the financials and resources, but also having the leadership qualities to seek help. A good leader knows when it’s time to seek outside support. While that point may be hard to pinpoint, certainly you have to explore the possibility that others may have solutions outside your workhouse. Only after every avenue has been thoroughly explored can you make a reasoned decision on the life or death of your project.
In the end, the industry that you find your project being practiced in isn’t as important as having some key principles and guidelines to guide your decisions. These principles listed above, will give you a good starting point no matter where you find yourself.
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