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A well known self-help guru, who has legions of raving fans across the world and dozens of books to his credit, once suggested that there is no such thing as failure; there are only results.

Well, as edifying as that may be, telling a Project Sponsor that “the project wasn’t a total disaster – it was just overflowing with results” isn’t going to get Project Managers very far.

And so in light of that, let’s evolve the discussion we started several months ago when we looked at the top 3 reasons why projects fail, and focus now on the top 3 things to do when a project is failing – and Project Managers find themselves knee deep in a big, steaming pile of “results”.

1. Focus on what’s REALLY going wrong

When a project falls short, it’s tempting to play the blame game, and find convenient scapegoats (Line Managers are often good targets, by the way).

However, the only way to really understand what’s going wrong – so that steps can be taken to mitigate the damage, and possibly turn the corner and get back on-track – is to rationally deconstruct the wreckage fairly and objectively.

Without question, it’s not a fun process. But, frankly, it’s the only way to identify the root cause (or, likely, causes), so that they don’t continue to undermine the project and pull it deeper into disaster.

2. Centralize communication

Good Project Managers aren’t power hungry, and prefer working with project team members who can handle the 3 As: autonomy, authority and accountability.

However, when a project starts to go sideways, in most cases Project Managers need to jump out in front of the problem, take control, and centralize communication — which includes everything from status reporting to daily check-ins, and so on.

Again, this is not about power. It’s about doing what’s necessary to try and protect the integrity of the project. Naturally, some project team members won’t like the change and may push back. In these situations, without losing their cool, Project Managers should explain that adopting a more rigid centralized communication system is a reasonable price to pay to keep the project going – because if it collapses, then so does everyone’s job, and possibly their reputations, too.

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3. Develop an ongoing Lessons Learned document

A number of years ago, the Project Management Institute (among others) started paying more attention to the “lessons learned” concept, and by no coincidence, questions regarding its value began appearing more often on the PMP exam and other tests. This was and remains a step in the right direction.

However, the perception that a lessons learned document should only be created after a project has formally finished, and Project Managers (among others) can reflect on the good, bad and the ugly, is short-sighted.

The lessons learned document should begin the moment the idea of the project comes into existence, and continue to be developed throughout the project. This doesn’t take a lot of time, and it doesn’t have to be developed or updated daily.

Just a few notes on an ongoing basis can Project Managers identify patterns and possibilities that might otherwise go undetected – yet could keep a project from worsening and, ultimately, failing.

What are your 3 ways to deal with a failing project?

Whether you call them “results”, or maybe you prefer another word that can’t be published on a family-friendly blog like this, you’ve probably been at the helm – or at least in the vicinity – of a project that is heading off the rails. And guess what? Now’s your chance to tell us about it!

Share your top 3 ways of dealing with project failure. Tell us what works – and tell us what doesn’t.

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