How to Live Down a Project Failure

shutterstock_Dawid Lech

If you’re on a project team that’s experienced a high-profile project failure, you’re probably wondering how you can live it down. Big projects suffer from scope creep, cost and time overruns, difficult and indecisive customers, and much, much, much more. But never fear: even if you find yourself in the midst of project failure, there are effective ways of putting it behind you.

Handle It Better

Most experienced software engineers and developers have a failed project (or ten) under their belt. “In my experience, everyone has had a project go south,” said Peter Adams, vice president of client services and M&A integration practice leader at Lighthouse Information Systems. “Those who survive are honest about the failure and are in action to not repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Keep talking to your boss or project manager, even when the project is clearly doomed to fail and there’s nothing you can do about it. “Make sure your portion of the project is very transparent,” Adams noted. “Communication is the key.” Even if the rest of the project bombs, you’re less likely to receive blowback from your boss if your own work proved satisfactory (or exemplary, for that matter).

Depends Where You Live

The way your manager views a project failure can also come down to the region where you work. “If you’re in Silicon Valley, a big failure really isn’t a problem,” Adams said. In fact, if you haven’t experienced a big failure in Silicon Valley, people will start to wonder what’s wrong with you; it’s a place much more likely to view such implosions as learning experiences.

“There’s a lot more accommodation for it [in Silicon Valley],” he added. “But there’s less tolerance for it on the East Coast. You need more performance up front, and there’s less experimentation expected.”

It’s All About the Process

Companies pay attention to whether you’ve followed their specific project-management system, or chosen to veer from the path. That includes the discovery and quoting process, in addition to the actual implementation. “Expectations change,” said Dimitri Miaoulis, partner and vice president at Baroan Technologies. “You have to ask yourself if there was enough discovery. Was it an out of box failure, or did a third party not deliver?”

Most tech companies have experienced the most common process-related problems that lead to project failure; chances are good they’ll yawn and move on, leaving your reputation unscathed.

It’s All in Your Head

According to Miaoulis, most tech leaders understand that many projects are simply doomed due to structural failure or cost overruns: “We don’t always hold it against you. There are so many variables on a project and with the way that things change in tech, it’s inevitable that things are sometimes going to go wrong.”

Adams agreed, admitting that it’s often all about managing expectations of the powers that be: “It sounds simplistic, but it’s important to remember responsibility and not perfection… You’ll still be responsible when things go wrong, but you’ve set the expectations well.”

Beat Them to the Punch

Figure out how to improve communication with your customer or client early on, Miaoulis said. While nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news—especially to their boss or even to the customer—it’s smart to communicate it right away and avoid bigger issues. “Problems really happen in the discovery process,” he said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road, and the people on the front lines are the ones who’ll get the blame.”

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