5 Ways To Save a Failing Project

A failed project is a loss of time and resources. Fortunately, it can be avoided with patience and resilience. With the right strategy, almost every project can be rescued.
January 24, 2022
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Not every project can be a success, but losing a project is always costly in terms of both time and resources. While sometimes the best thing you can do is pull the plug, it’s not something that you should do without putting up a fight first.

There is a myriad of reasons why projects can fail, and while we can’t talk about all of them, we can give some general advice that fits most situations. Here are 5 tips to help you save a failing project.

Frame it as a problem

There is no way to sugarcoat it, a failing project is a problem. The first step is coming to terms with that fact. The second step is to diagnose what kind of problem you are facing. This is what cognitive psychologists call problem framing

By definition a problem is a situation where you have A) a starting state (where your project is right now), B) a finished state (the recovery of the project), C) a set of obstacles that prevent a change of states (the condition that puts you in your current situation) and D) a set of possible behaviors that help you overcome those obstacles. 

A problem is considered well structured when you have defined in clear terms the 4 elements mentioned above. On the other hand, if at least one of the elements is missing what you have is an unstructured problem.

Well-structured problems are more likely to be solved, on the basis that by defining each element you are already strategizing. Most problems, unfortunately, aren’t as structured as you’d like. 

In some cases, you might be missing key information, while in others you may be assuming that a piece of information is more or less relevant than it is. Instead of jumping prematurely to a solution, you need to assess the situation as objectively as possible. 

Sometimes salvaging a project may seem impossible. This happens most often when you focus on the end goal. It’s like trying to lose weight—taking off a few pounds seems more likely than losing a hundred pounds.

Instead of calling it quits, try to frame the problem with your team as a series of smaller steps. This is called climbing the mountain. 

Think of a mountaineer trying to reach the peak of Everest. They don’t focus on the peak, but rather on the road ahead. Climbers are tacticians, they are constantly making decisions about which route to take. They know for a fact that some routes are safer than others, even if they take longer or require retreating from the mountain.

And that’s ok. As long as you end up in a closer place (or one that will help you get closer) to the peak, then you are doing great. Take that lesson to heart and apply it to your project. Ask yourself what’s the immediate obstacle, solve it, and then look for the next obstacle. 

The long way around might entail missing a deadline, but that’s an acceptable loss when the alternative is scrapping the project altogether.

Restructure Your Team

Sometimes a team’s skill set just doesn’t align with the nature of a project, even when that same team might have successfully met their goals in the past. Maybe their methodology isn’t turning out the expected results. Maybe they lack the technical skills. Or maybe they don’t have the right leadership for the current project.

Whatever the case may be, restructuring a team is a solution, but one that can’t be taken lightly. While restructuring doesn’t necessarily mean firing (regardless of the bad rep the word gets) it does entail a change in the team’s dynamic, one that can cause more harm than good.

Restructuring can mean anything—bringing fresh blood to the project, reshuffling the workload, a change of leadership, or even downsizing. How do you go about restructuring your team?

That’s a complicated topic, as different issues will require different restructuring. To decide you need to make a diagnosis, trying to find the fundamental issues behind your failing project. Techniques like Ishikawa’s fishbone are excellent tools that can help you get a better grasp of the situation.

One piece of general advice though: rely on your team, interview them. The people who are closer to the project have an insider perspective that will help you see the issues in a different light. Find the balance between what you are seeing from the outside and what they think is happening.

Restructuring is always a risk. Depending on the person, adapting to a new workflow can be a challenge unto itself. If you choose to restructure make sure that your team understands why it’s happening, and try to make the process as gradual as possible.

Consult

A full restructuring of the team might not be necessary if a few key changes can get the project back on track. Sometimes an expert can bring perspective to a team that’s struggling with a project.

A consultant is a tremendous asset when your team lacks the skills and or knowledge to meet your project’s goals. They can provide insights and expertise, facilitating your team’s workflow and helping them grow and expand their skill set.

A team having trouble adapting to new technology or having constant questions about the nature of your business are both clear signs that you should consider hiring a consultant. 

In contrast to restructuring, a consultant is a relatively innocuous solution, as their impact on the team’s dynamics tends to be rather small in comparison. The consultant’s job tends to be relatively short-lived, since the more the team grows, the less they are needed.

If the team requires the consultant’s help for long periods, consider the investment—in the long run, it might be a better solution to restructure.

Outsource the Project

Sometimes you just have to know when to call it quits, and no, by that we don’t mean killing the project but rather putting it in other people’s hands. Outsourcing is a powerful solution that can help turn your project around.

It’s ok to accept that sometimes a team isn’t up to the task. As we said before, even the best teams can meet projects that they aren’t fit to tackle. In these cases, the best choice is to look for outside help.

There are 2 ways to approach this, either have the 2 teams working alongside one another (which is by far the best case scenario) or relegate the whole project to your outsource solution. 

If you are going to hand over the project, make sure that the new team has adequate time to interview the previous team and to go over what’s already been done. This transitional period is extremely important as it will make the job easier in the long term.

Yes, outsourcing will take its time but, thanks to modern technology, including state-of-the-art AI prediction models, outsourcing firms can build a team in record time from their candidate pool to take over your project. 

Prepare for Anything

You can start seeing the sign of a failing project before it becomes unwieldy: small delays, lack of communication, lack of clarity, buggy deliveries. These all may point to the fact that things might not be going as well as you would like. 

Create contingency plans from the get-go and keep in constant communication with your teams, then start to tackle issues before they become a full-blown problem. The best way to save a failing project is to avoid getting to the point where you need to rescue it.

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