Project failure.  Unfortunately, it’s something we all have to deal with from time to time.  More than half of all projects experience failure to some degree so there’s almost no way to avoid it.  It may not be outright project failure – it may be a project successfully implemented, but that went too far over budget.  Or successfully implemented, but implemented well past the agreed upon deadline.  Both of those situations would be deemed as at least partial failures.

How do we cope with project failures?  What about the catastrophic ones?  The failures that are huge – possibly career ending (or at least have the potential to end your tenure with your current organization)?  What about those?  Do we just move on to the next project?  How do we, as project managers, save face in these situations and hold our head up high and graciously accept the next assignment?

Reason for Failure

The first step to accepting project failure and handling it in our careers is realizing that it just plain happens.  Sometimes we could have done something about it, and sometimes the failure trigger was beyond our control.  Either way, don’t let bother you to the point that it affects your performance and especially not to the point that it affects other projects that you might be managing simultaneously.  To fail on one project is one thing …. to fail on several projects at once is something all together different – and far worse.

The second step is to meet with your team and discuss the failure.  What caused it?  What could have been done differently?  Was the customer challenging?  Should the customer have been managed differently?  Was scope and requirements an issue?  Should there have been more planning?  The idea is to get a perspective of what went wrong as a discussion within your own team first before taking it to anyone else.  Not that you’re keeping the failure from anyone – at this point I’m assuming that everyone is aware of the failure.  The project has been canceled, or implemented unsuccessfully, or deemed at least a partial failure for some reason.  But what you’re doing here is discussing it as a team before having any further discussions with the outside world.

Finally, conduct a lessons learned session with your customer.  It’s imperative that you hold this productive session because it’s a chance for everyone on both sides to analyze the good and – especially in this case – the bad of the project.  What went right and what went wrong.  Without this after-the-fact-knowledgebase, you may be destined to repeat the project failure and no one wants that to happen.