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Project Safety: How to prevent projects crashing-out & minimize the damage when then do?

On the path from strategy to success there will inevitably be casualties. Initiatives that struggle to gain traction, go off course, are retired early or even crash off the track. The question is: How to prevent projects crashing-out & minimize the damage when then do

Exploring Project Failure

‘Oh, we don’t talk about that!’ said the senior executive half serious and half in jest.  That was in response to the consultant’s unusual request: ‘Can you tell me about your organization’s project failures’.  

To dwell on an organization’s failed or floundering projects may seem strange, but the consultant firmly believed: “You can learn more from how an organization handles its failed or struggling Initiatives, than you can from its successful ones”.  There were three key areas of interest to the consultant.

  • Floundering projects – The ability to speedily course correct when a project shows signs of struggle.
  • Doomed projects – The ability to ‘kill-off’ projects, if needed, and to do so in a way that does not stigmatize failure or punish those involved.
  • Learning opportunities – The ability to harvest the learning from project setbacks or failure – so that whether a project succeeds or fails it won’t all be wasted.  Any new knowledge, capability or clarity that results could contribute to future success.

Pause for a moment to consider how good your organization is at each of these 3 areas.

Re-thinking Project Failure

When things are going well it is easy to manage an initiative.  However, it is when things are going awry that the determination and skills of those involved is revealed. It is also when the ethos of the organization is revealed.

Project failures and setbacks are an all-too-common part of corporate life.  Indeed, if you read the reports there is frustration or disappointment in as many as 8 out of 10 projects.  Let’s not run from that reality.  Instead, let’s turn it to our advantage.  

The question is: How to prevent projects crashing-out & minimize the damage when then do

Look at it this way: If your organization is not struggling to deliver on its key projects and initiatives, then perhaps they are not ambitious enough. Moreover, if your organization does not have a ‘project scrapyard’ it is probably not being rigorous or ruthless enough about how its project portfolio is managed.

5 Ways to Reduce Project Road Kill

On the path from strategy to success there will inevitably be casualties. Projects that struggle to gain traction, go off course, are retired early or even crash off the track. 

When you accept that there will be casualties and that not all projects can or should cross the finish line, the focus turns to minimizing the negative and capitalizing on the positive:

  • Prevent false starts by slowing down before putting the project or initiative on the track.
    • Vet projects – validating the strategy and its underlying business need / business case. 
    • Apply greater project rigour (work plan, timeline, risk plan, etc.).
    • Set projects up for success.  Make sure that projects have the maximum chance of success before they are started.  
    • Start with some fast laps that will help to validate the approach and generate some quick wins. Then you can commit with greater confidence to the longer term.
  • Prioritize and sequence projects with care. Manage the portfolio to prevent project proliferation.  Projects and initiatives must compete for resources – but be careful this can result in ‘over-egging’ projects to get them approved.  A fair and transparent process by which resources are allocated to projects is important.  Let the ‘hot air’ out early from projects to ensure realism and prevent a mismatch of expectations.  
  • Take the project off the road before it crashes.  Take action as soon as a ‘wobble’ appears. The longer it goes on the more difficult to course correct, or to scrap.  Moreover, the more resources are consumed.
  • Ongoing repairs and adjustments prevent crashes.  More regular and more effective project reviews are required to identify what is working and fix what is not. Agility is key.
  • Protect the people, not the project.  Reduce the personal risk for those unfortunate enough to have been associated with a struggling or failed project.  That enables them to make better decisions and to call time on a project if needed. 

It’s Time to Destigmatize Failure

Widely recognized as an expert in the requirements of stoking an organization’s innovation, the consultant explained his conviction: ‘No doubt you have heard the Silicon Valley taunt – “if you want to succeed then you need to get better at failing”.  While it is not an attractive message, there may be some truth to it’ he added. 

How good is your organization at killing-off projects that no longer make sense? Is it able to ‘see the writing on the wall’ for a project and take decisive action, thereby freeing up resources to be allocated elsewhere. How easy is it for leaders to say ‘I/we were wrong, this is not going to work’, especially when significant resources have been spent and reputations are on the line. The ‘sunk-cost fallacy’ is a fancy term for the difficulty of accepting our losses and moving on.1

There is a fanfare when projects are launched, but when projects are retired there is often only a stigma. However, punishing or stigmatizing failure can have the perverse effect of generating more of it, rather than less.  Here are some of the reasons why:

  • It causes people to think twice before they commit to ambitious projects
  • It can stifle innovation, experimentation and risk taking – the fear of failure encourages people to ‘play it safe’
  • It can prevent people from seeing the risks or at least bringing them out into the open
  • It can result in people presenting a rosy picture and exaggerating the progress being made
  • It can result in finger-pointing as well as hiding from responsibility.
  • It can prevent lessons being learned when setbacks do happen, with patterns then repeating themselves.

Celebrating failure may sound strange, but if a project is retired early because it cannot succeed, or no longer makes sense, then that should be seen as ‘a win’. Those involved should be celebrated for their efforts and for there wisdom in agreeing to ‘call it a day’. 

For many of these unfortunate projects there are human casualties too – tales of stress and frustration, wasted effort and personal sacrifice, political fallout or reputational damage – told by the people involved.  Whether it is cake in the canteen, vouchers for a Spa or a team night-out, it is important that those working on a project that gets scrapped are recognized and appreciated.

Q: When is the last time somebody in your organization suggested that their project or initiative should be defunded and the resources allocated somewhere else? When is the last time you ‘called-quits’ on an initiative that no longer made sense?2

Think Project Safety 

People working on a project must be able t ch talk about creating ‘safe’ workplace environments where people say what they are thinking and can otherwise be themselves. This ‘Psychological Safety’ is closely linked to the broader concept of ‘Project Safety’, which also includes Respectful Challenge, Collective Smarts and Sufficient Variety. Combined these factors can prevent a project skidding or crashing out of control – you can think of it as the trackside crash barriers for your project.

  1. “A person who has not made peace with his losses is likely to accept gambles that would be unacceptable to him otherwise.” Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013 []
  2. The many reasons why this is unlikely to happen are examined in ‘Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick: People, Probabilities, and Big Moves to Beat the Odds’ by Chris Bradley, Martin Hirt, Sven Smit, Wiley 2018. []

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