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What to Do When a Project Fails, According to J.K. Rowling

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I have a new guilty pleasure.

My name is Vanessa and I obsessively watch commencement speeches on YouTube. At the time of writing, I’ve probably watched over 50 inspirational videos. That’s approximately a full workday’s worth of passive listening to the stirring words of celebrity success.

Admittedly, this is a self-medicating way to handle future uncertainties and ya, probably indicative of some unattended neuroses. Still, sitting, listening to J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech for the third time, I thought yes, I can definitely turn this into a blog post about project management. Specifically one about what  to do when a project fails.

There are countless project management articles that outline how to be a successful project manager. And they’re great. However, sometimes, try as we might, the project we undertake fails miserably. So then what?

Well, then we listen to the words of JK Rowling. Read more to learn what to do when a project fails, how to realize the benefits  of failure, and why failure can lead to future success.

Step 1: Conduct a Project Post-Mortem or Project Retrospective

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. J.K.s commencement speech, Harvard 2008

The first step to benefiting from project failure is to take a good look at what went wrong in your project and what went right.
Analyze your project plan, the variance between your estimated hours and actual hours, available and used resources, and allocated and realized budget. Break down all steps of your process so you can uncover what was the root of your problem.

All too often, once we experience failure we chalk up the whole experience as an “I’ll never do that again!” This is incorrect. Maybe, on the whole, the project actually went well, and 80% was tackled correctly in the first place. If that’s the case, don’t dismiss the proper procedures. Instead, take time to do a project post-mortem so you can gain insight into the problems you faced, and what you did right. Then you can walk away with crucial data regarding how to implement your next project: what to do and what not to do.

Step 2: Improve Team Communication

Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential J.K. Rowling

If the project you managed did not go as planned, this is a huge indicator that you should work to improve team communication.

How well your team communicates, to you, as a project manager, to each other, and to clients, all play an important role in the success of a project.

More often than not, a project fails because somewhere down the line someone missed an important message, project requirements were misunderstood, or the deadline and project updates got delivered incorrectly.

Even if this is not the case, and your team communicated routinely and effectively throughout, after a project fails you should take time to sit down and talk with your team. It’s important to seek feedback and share insights on how you can avoid past mistakes and improve future projects.

Step 3: Learn from Mistakes

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. J.K. Rowling

Rarely ever does a project go 100% as planned. It is almost a guarantee that there will be something that could have been handled better. But instead, of getting  stressed about work mistakes or project failures, realize that it’s just a new perspective in your repertoire that will lend you to better decision-making in the future.

What do you do when a project fails? How do you overcome work setbacks? Comment below.


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