What to do when a project heads south

Today I’d like to start with a story. Not so long ago, my wife and I were driving home. We thought it sounded like a good idea to pick up a movie so we could watch it when we got home. My wife pulled out her phone and looked for available movies. The movie we wanted was out almost everywhere, except for one kiosk which just happened to be on our way home. So, we took the exit off the highway and headed toward the little town where the kiosk was located.

The first thing we discovered was that the road was closed 3 miles ahead. No problem I said confidently! We’ll take a back road. Mind you this was late at night and it was pouring the rain with thunder and lightning flashing in the sky. So we wound around some country roads, finally coming to this town.

At this point, I asked Sarah for directions to the kiosk. She had mapped this on her phone and told me the way to go. We went down a small street and found the map pointing us down what looked like a driveway (the map said it was a road). Following this took us over a hill where the road nearly disappeared, but it popped us out in a church parking lot. Then we drove out of the parking lot into a retirement community. We circled this area a bit, finally coming out to the main road. We turned left, drove a bit, and finally saw the kiosk…yay!

At this point, you’d think the story was over. Not quite.

Since it was still raining, I ran up to the kiosk to get our movie we’d reserved and guess what? The rain had soaked the screen so the touchscreen didn’t work. No movie.

Things don’t always go as planned

Just like with our attempt at getting a movie, if you’ve worked for clients for any length of time, chances are good you’ve had a project that hasn’t gone as well as you’d hoped. Maybe the client delayed things. Maybe the work took longer than you estimated. Or maybe one of a thousand other factors caused things to derail. Regardless, it can feel like you’re lost at night in a storm.

What do I do now?

There comes that point in a project when you realize that things aren’t working like they should. You realize that something needs to change. Maybe your client brought it up, or maybe you realized it first. In any case, this is the critical point in a project where taking the right steps can bring things back on track.

What should you do?

Stop everything and breathe

That’s right, the first action you should take is to stop the project and take a deep breathe. This can feel very counter-intuitive. Often when things aren’t going well, everyone involved in the project just wants to speed things up. Go faster! Fix this now!

This isn’t going to work though. The path you’re on has lead you to this problem. Going faster down this path will almost certainly cause you to make more of the same mistakes even faster and at a greater cost.

A new plan

After taking a breathe, stop and assess the situation. What is the problem? Is the project behind schedule? If so, why? Did the client add to the scope? Did your team fall behind? Did things just take longer than you’d anticipated?

Once you’ve determined the problem, put together a plan to fix that problem. Do you need more people on your team? Less people? Do you need to adjust the scope or the timeline? Maybe you need to split the project into ‘Phase 1′ and ‘Phase 2’?

Focus on the solution, not the problem

Once you’ve come up with a plan, it’s critical that you start the dialogue with your client. The focus of this discussion should be on the solution, not on the problem. The worst thing you can do is to blame your client for the situation. Why? Blame is something that neither side will want to accept. It’s also very rare that the blame lies 100% with one person or group of people. It really doesn’t matter who’s at fault anyway because the problem belongs to both of you. You might as well call the blame a 5050 split and move toward a solution.

The discussion

If the client was the one to complain about the project going off track, this will be the hard part. Discussing the problem with your client should always be done either face to face or via phone/Skype. Don’t shoot off an email thinking that will take care of things.

Make sure you are open and honest with your client. It will be hard. Explain the issue along with your proposed plan. You also need to reassure your client that you’re committed to successfully finishing the project.

Don’t be alarmed if they have some pushback on this or flat out don’t believe you. Chances are they aren’t happy at this point anyway and they may still want to vent that frustration. That’s ok. Do your best to focus on the solution and keep things moving toward a successful completion.

Keep things in perspective

The most important thing to keep in mind during this whole process – “This too shall pass.” That’s what I remind myself of during a rough project. I focus on getting to the finish line and making the remainder of the project as positive of an experience as possible for everyone involved.

What methods or approaches have you found to be helpful in navigating a difficult project?

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