3 Ways to Cope When Your Project Goes Off The Rails

If I’m honest it has been a while since I’ve worked on a project that has gone totally off the rails. We’ve had little disasters here and there. Perhaps experience helps me frame and deal with these as not the end of the world but rather a problem to be got around.

Whether it’s a big problem or a small issue doesn’t actually matter. What matters is whether it feels as if your project is under control and whether your stakeholders believe it is under control. When you project starts to go off the rails you need to act quickly to do something about it, regardless of the size of the problem.

At the Digital PM Summit in 2016, Aaron Irizarry, Director of UX at Nasdaq Product Design, spoke about recovering projects (he didn’t actually use the language of project recovery though – interesting – a lot of the presentations covered project management subjects we’d all recognize but without the jargon).

Here are the 3 ways he set out to help you reel a troubled project back in.

1. Work with your stakeholders

“The one thing that derails your project is people,” Aaron said. When your project is sliding sideways, you need your project stakeholders – clients, customers, sponsor – to work with you to help put things right.

“Focusing on other people instead of the solution to the problem at hand only leads to additional conflict and away from a problem’s resolution,” he went on. In other words, stop blaming the customer or your users and just get down to the business of sorting it all out.

Avoid as much unnecessary conflict as possible. Trust me: there’s enough conflict on a struggling project without you adding more where you have the option of side-stepping it. Think about what you need to do to move the project forward.

When things start to go south, you need to bring back transparency. And if you haven’t lost it, keep it front and center.

Take responsibility for areas where your team may have missed the mark. Own it: “We made a judgment call and it didn’t work.” That’s going to earn you credibility in the midst of a crisis. You’re doing it to get back to a point of collaboration, not finger pointing. Plus, it’s just good manners to take responsibility for your mistakes.

2. Work with your team

In an agency or consultancy project environment you’ll probably spend a good amount of time building relationships with the stakeholders involved. You’ll understand how they choose to work.

You’ll investigate what sort of communication works best for them and you’ll be tailoring it to ways that you think will work best for them. You’ll remember the names of their dogs so you can have “small talk”.

If you are doing that with customers, why not show the same level of interest in your team members?

You should want to know who you are working with on your team and how they work. Do you?

If you build relationships with your team then it is easier for them to see that you are doing your best when times are tough.

“It’s not enough to just manage our teams during challenging project situations, if we want to be successful and more importantly help our teams be successful, we need to lead,” Aaron said.

Aaron Irizarry on successfully leading teams.

3. Work with the process

When a project starts to go wrong you need to spend your time on sorting it out, so your processes need to support you in that. You won’t have time to design a process for dealing with issues in the middle of an issue, so plan in advance.

So: have you got a process for troubleshooting? Or managing project issues? Do you have a communications plan that you can whip out when you need to starting communicating clearly about a crisis?

Aaron said that you should use the tools that fit the moment, as long as they are agreed upon with the team. Whether that’s a software tool or a process or another kind of project technique. Then you can collectively troubleshoot.

However, be prepared to ditch a process. There’s no point working on something that isn’t working. If you have to switch out and use a different process, just do it. The key to managing to do that and not letting it overwhelm you is to stay flexible.

Even if you don’t like to do the other way or it’s not your normal approach, stay open to being flexible if the situation requires you to pivot (or just to listen to someone else’s suggestion of how your problems could be tackled.

Just get something done

Project work is tough. Projects that are going off the rails are tougher. Our first job as project managers is to try to steer the project back on course, if it feels recoverable. Working with the stakeholders, business partners, team and processes are ways to help get back on track.

But getting back on track might not look like exactly what you were hoping for.

The solution you need to turn to might not be the ideal solution. Aaron’s best advice here was to do what works to get something done. Aim for something scalable – something you can get to where you want it to be later.

Can’t deliver all the requirements? Look for something that gets your project over the line. The rest can come later. As long as you get others to understand that is part of the plan.

While we should be doing everything we can to avoid blind spots, the reality of complicated project work is that you can’t control everything. Sometimes projects slide, and when they start going downhill you get that snowball effect.

Use what you can to stop it happening before it starts: good project management practices, kick off meetings, sprint planning, team retrospectives, pre-mortems, whatever. All of these can inform your project planning and the approaches you take later.

Stay the course. Be flexible. Lead. And breathe.

Your next steps

  • Think about what you can reasonably do.
  • Get the team together.
  • Plan an approach together.
  • Talk to the customer.
  • Watch this interview with Todd Williams, author of Rescue the Problem Project.