Project Management Institute

The afterlife

the after life

by Peter Fretty

it’s not as if any project manager sets out to fail. But given the staggering number of projects that come up short, it's inevitable that most project managers will find themselves on the losing side at some point. And although it may feel like the end of the world, project managers who actively search for meaning do manage to survive.

First, though, they have to be willing to take a good, long look at the cold hard facts, not matter how ugly they may be. “If you're not managing the situation as it really is, then you have very little chance indeed of succeeding,” says Graham Oakes, Ph.D., principal of Graham Oakes Ltd., a project management consultancy in Northwich, Cheshire, England. “If the reality is that something is failing, then recognize that.”

That may mean owning up to mistakes. “If it is not too late, identify what can be done to fix the problem, and then get on with it.

Project failures rarely stem from complex causes. They can be usually tracked back to rather trivial sources, most of them strongly related to communications.

—Bors Gabor, PMP, Pannon GSM Telecommunications Ltd., Budaörs, Hungary

Sometimes the only action you can identify is to ask someone better suited to the situation for help, which is really hard to do,” he says. “Good executives will recognize this and respect you for it. On reflection, they'll recognize they'd rather have a medium-size mess now than have you soldier on and dump a grand-scale mess on them later.”

Whatever the project manager chooses to do, he or she should try not to dwell too much on the negative— even if the project goes down in flames. “Sometimes, even with the best risk management in the world, the project doesn't deliver what it set out to,” Dr. Oakes says. “Businesses need to take risks in order to deliver returns to their stakeholders. Obviously, some of those investments don't pay off, but funds managers don't usually go out and shoot themselves because one of the shares in their portfolio goes down in price, and neither should project managers.”



Survival Tactics

So your project flopped, and now you're convinced you'll be forever doomed to has-been status. Fear not. Here are some tips on how to forge ahead—straight from three project managers who have led failed projects only to find greater success down the road.

1Graham Oakes, Ph.D., principal, Graham Oakes Ltd. Northwich, Cheshire, England

Like most seasoned project managers, Graham Oakes has led some losing efforts, including one massively underestimated software project. He remembers working practically every hour of the day trying to rectify the problems, only to sink deeper and deeper into the mire. “Eventually I went to my boss and said, I don't know how to deliver this, so you need to find another project manager,’” he says. “It wasn't easy, but I learned to recognize problems when they are small and manageable rather than just keep going on.”


Dr. Oakes has since embraced a philosophy that assumes 25 percent of all his projects will experience some sort of failure wherein they will not deliver results that both he and the client are happy with. “However, 50 percent are going to do OK, and 25 percent are going to be real successes,” he says.

And, fortunately, many of today's executives see the benefit of acknowledging setbacks, regrouping and trying to figure out how to move forward, says Andrea Waltz, principal of Courage Crafters Inc., a training and development organization in Vancouver, Wash., USA.

“Sure, failure may not be ideal, but it is ideal to learn from it. No one wants to work under a cloud of fear that if they fail it's over. That stifles creativity and risk-taking,” she says. “Risks are what can lead to massive breakthroughs, and organizations that don't accept failures as a byproduct of the process will see only incremental performance and incremental success.”

Damage Control

Once the project manager comes to terms with the fact that the project at hand is indeed doomed, he or she shouldn't just sit around wallowing. Instead, they should immediately embrace a review process that fosters a comprehensive and strategic view of the entire situation.

The analysis should start with the project manager drawing a map of the leading causes of the project failure while neither over-emphasizing nor hiding anyone's role, says Bors Gabor, PMP, senior project manager at Pannon GSM Zrt, a mobile telecommunications company based in Budaörs, Hungary.

“This is when you should prepare a plan to reduce the damage—preferably on your own initiative. Exuding honest and open communication can ultimately help in proving your dedication and dependability as well as maintaining most of the peer and superior trust,” he says. “Subsequently implementing these lessons should help focus on detecting the trivial causes early on during future projects, before you have to tackle something big and ugly. Knowing your organization and people well saves you many troubles.”

2Bors Gab or, PMP, senior project manager, Pannon GSM Telecommunications Ltd., Budaörs, Hungary

Bors Gabor was involved in a project that was cancelled right before launch—but not before it soaked up two years of investment costs and a huge amount of internal resources.

He came away with a hard-earned lesson in where to look for mistakes. “Project failures rarely stem from complex causes. They can be usually tracked back to rather trivial sources, most of them strongly related to communications—non-involved, not properly involved or hidden stakeholders leading the list,” he says. “Since [the failed project], I‘ve led some rather difficult ventures to success, so much so that lately I keep getting assignments on putting already troubled projects back on track.”

Team leaders may even want to implement an ongoing lessons learned process at the beginning of a project and let it serve as a living document rather than an afterthought, says Wayne V. Herbert, PMP, director of Catalyst Project Solutions, a Singaporebased project consultancy focused on information and communications technology. “By starting the lessons learned process in conjunction with the risk analysis, project teams can more effectively develop and deploy compensating strategies as potential failures become evident,” he says.

The review process also might include “setting up a task force to analyze the failure, doing a thorough causal analysis to identify key causes as well as recommend preventive steps that are easy to share with all stakeholders and across the organization,” says Somasundaram Muralidharan, Ph.D., PMP, senior vice president at Covansys, a global consulting and technology services company in Mepz, Chennai, India.

To extract the maximum learning and value from the experience, project managers must get to the root cause of the failure, says Mark Ives, project manager at Meta PM, a project management consulting firm in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and president of the PMI Melbourne, Australia Chapter.

“If the causes are mainly found within the organizational context, then there may be limited opportunity for the project manager to improve the situation,” he says. “However, in these cases, the project manager may choose to be more questioning or cautious about accepting similar assignments within that organization.”

3Karen Ip, PMP, head of IT, Jardine Aviation Services Ltd., Lantau, Hong Kong

Karen Ip has managed to escape the angst of killing off a project outright, but she has had her fair share of failed projects that couldn't meet the time, budget and cost originally agreed to in the project charter. Yet she contends that's a good thing. “I have become a better project manager as a result of going through the painful experience of navigating the failure-related issues,” she says. “I have learned that, when put in perspective, every project is a true growth opportunity for the project manager.”


Her biggest takeaway has been to continuously monitor projects with risk assessments while also maintaining solid communications with the project owner and stakeholders and providing them with updated alternatives. “It is going through the continued discovery and communication processes that assists in avoiding the same mistakes repeating themselves in the future,” Ms. Ip says.

The Comeback

Not surprisingly, executives, sponsors and even team members may be skittish about working with a project manager coming fresh off a failed project. And don't assume redemption will simply kick in at some point, says Francis Wega, PMP, Hagerstown, Md., USA-based senior project management consultant at Project Assistants Inc. You have to work for it. He recommends following a strict recovery process:

  • Repent. Acknowledge the failure, explain how and why it happened, and take responsibility for your role in it.
  • Turn Away. Show you've learned from your mistakes and you're dedicated to change.
  • Practice—It Makes (Almost) Perfect. Implement what is set forth in lessons learned and your chances for better results should increase.

And be sure to act quickly. “If this is not handled swiftly, the problem will continue to linger and compound—making redemption virtually impossible,” Mr. Wega says.

Of course, there's nothing like a wildly successful project to wipe out any nasty memories of one gone woefully wrong. “The only thing that can overcome bad is good,” he says. “So unless you do something good, the redemption process is never complete.” PM

Peter Fretty is a Whitehall, Mich., USA-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in more than 45 publications, including Advanced Manufacturing.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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