Imagine this: you’re going to a music festival. It’s not something you would usually enjoy, but the headlining act is an old favorite.
Imagine this: you’re going to a music festival. It’s not something you would usually enjoy, but the headlining act is an old favorite. There are also whisperings of their retirement in the wings, likely making this your last chance to see them live.
But before the event, the band cancels. The festival organizers rally and find another popular act to replace them—one that you happen to hate.
If you fell prey to the sunk-cost fallacy, you’d go to the festival anyway, reasoning that you’ve spent the money already. You’d go even if it rained for the entire weekend. You’d have a terrible time and still believe it was worth it.
Many project managers fall into a similar trap. They become reluctant to abandon a project—even if abandonment is beneficial. Perhaps they’re emotionally invested in it. Or, having talked up its potential, they’re scared of stakeholders seeing them as a failure. The sunk-cost fallacy can equally affect your higher-ups, who may focus too much on their pet projects (sometimes to the detriment of others).
Indeed, culling projects that deserve it isn’t easy. That said, with every project you slash, you can learn valuable lessons that will give you a better chance of project success in the future.
The emotional impact of a failed project
The impact of perceived “failure” is no small thing. For project managers, in particular, it comes with a range of complicated feelings. For instance, you may feel you’ve let your organization down, having not delivered what you advertised.
This sense of failure can affect your mood and self-esteem, regardless of age or experience. Your confidence could suffer, affecting your normal enthusiasm to step forward and identify new, exciting project opportunities.
And, unfortunately, you might not be the only one who reacts negatively. Senior leaders who have a strategic investment in your culled project might make their disappointment known in your appraisals. This could affect future opportunities and working relationships.
While you can’t always avoid the emotional impact of project failure, we’re here to reverse the negative stigma surrounding it with 4 valuable lessons.
Finding success in failure
While we all want to avoid it, project failure is common. And it’s very rarely the cause of one person. There could be multiple reasons why a project doesn’t perform as you thought.
When a project does fail, the most important thing you can do—especially in the immediate aftermath—is not wallow. Instead, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and find the value in your culled project. Consider the following:
1. The Importance of Pre-Project Plans
Did the scope of your project snowball? Did you lack the resources—human or otherwise—to complete the tasks crucial to achieving your project milestones? Look at your pre-project plan and compare your projected results with reality. Then, identify why there were shortcomings in the first place.
If it’s a matter of not having referred back to the plan enough (or not at all), this is a mistake you can easily avoid in the future. However, if the plan was too detailed, meaning it was difficult for teams to follow, you can brush up on your scheduling skills before putting the next plan in place.
And ask your project team for their thoughts on why things didn’t go as planned. They will be able to highlight issues with convergence points and dependencies. They may also be able to give you a realistic view of how long certain deliverables took versus how long you thought they would take.
Then, you can apply the information you’ve accumulated to your next project. For example, if your upcoming project has convergence points, identify these as risks ahead of time. And put a mitigation plan in place in case things don’t run as smoothly as you’d like.
The better your planning and monitoring, the sooner you can spot if a project cannot meet its objectives or is draining more resources than planned. And the quicker you can cease work, the more time, money, and effort you save, meaning a more ‘successful failure’.
2. Skills Gaps
Your project could have been a resounding success if only the team had been able to pivot tasks. This speaks to the need for agility in teams. And, crucially, transparent and regular communication. If the team is kept in the loop and understands the reasoning behind changes, they are more likely to maintain trust in the management team.
In terms of agility, this means identifying and addressing potential skill gaps. Look at the projects in the pipeline and match the necessary deliverables to the capabilities of your current project team. If you’re unsure of every individual’s abilities, discuss them in their 1-1s.
Then, you can either make a development plan or, where necessary, flag requirements for new hires that meet the skills gap but also overlap with other core skills in your team. Again, you want to ensure the ability to pivot and not end up with individual, irreplaceable resources.
3. External Suppliers
Maybe your supplier let you down and didn’t deliver the materials on time. And maybe this wasn’t their fault. After all, they had no control over the geopolitical tensions that erupted after you signed your sales agreement, closing down the shipping lane between their country and yours.
What can you learn from this? Firstly, it’s always good to keep your options open when dealing with external suppliers. So, when your leading supplier suffers a sudden setback, you can call up the next on the list and maintain momentum.
Secondly, you want to ensure that contractually, you have an exit strategy should you need it. If delays place a project at risk, you don’t want the implications of an early contract termination to compound the project's failure.
Alternatively, the delivery of your external resources may have been one of the successes of your failed project. In this case, ask yourself if you will need the same materials down the line. ****Negotiating a bulk deal for upcoming projects could get you a better price, for instance, or make you a preferred customer should they experience a shortage in the future.
4. Technology and Implementation
So, your project wasn’t a success this time. But it certainly wasn’t a waste of time either. You can take pride in the skills and new processes you developed along the way.
Perhaps you implemented and learned the ropes of a new project management or automation tool. Or maybe you used existing functionality to keep track of your team’s capabilities, so you now have a more accurate picture of resource availability. Either way, you’ve increased the efficiency of your future projects, even before you’ve started them.
Or did your project teams enhance their project management methodologies along the way? If they worked on escalating change requests, for instance, they would be more able to quickly respond to new requirements, with a better chance of projects aligning with stakeholders’ visions.
No matter what, the biggest lesson you can learn - and impart - is resilience. Being sensitive to team morale and providing strong leadership during the immediate aftermath is crucial for future project implementation.
Turn Project Failures Into Future Successes
Looking at your culled project up close and identifying what went wrong will mean you avoid making similar mistakes. Equally, pinpointing what went right will help you replicate those successes in the future.
Of course, it might be hard to keep track of all these learnings or communicate them efficiently to your project teams. In that case, consider a tool that will help you access all the project data you need in one central place.
Your main aim should be to eliminate the stigma around projects that can't be saved. Recognize that not all failures are due to poor management or execution, and communicate that message to your teams. Reducing stress and boosting morale are potent levers for helping to ensure past failures don’t prevent future success.