5 Tips to Proactively Handle Project Failure

August 20, 2014

rescuing a project from failure

Being in the business of buoying beleaguered projects, there is one B-word I loathe —blame. It is the most frequently used word on troubled and failing projects; we hear it nightly on the news. “Who is going to get fired for this?” In reality, only in the rarest of occasions have I seen the need to assign blame. Finding fault and applying the comprehensive corrective action is the best solution. Blaming someone neither finds the reason nor corrects the failure. Blame is at the root of a culture that is secretive, insecure, and narcissistic. Blame-ridden cultures stop at providing temporary pleasure to a small faction while the root cause of the issue continues to route organizations unabated.

Blame Takes Your Eye off the Ball 

Trying to affix blame, finding who to fire, or hauling companies into court is about punishment. Failures need solutions. We need to learn from the foibles and chart a course to avoid repeat mistakes. Unless someone knew about the issue and did nothing to correct it, directed someone to create the failure, willfully acted in a harmful manner, or knowingly did not have the governance in place to address it, he or she is not the problem. Recently, we reviewed three high-profile multi-year projects. In two, problems stemmed from the lack of focus placed on testing. On the third, it was lack of governance. In all three, a secondary issues was the lack of communication. In all three, someone is on record for uttering the phrase, “I was never told there was an issue.” In all three, people overtly plotted action to avoid being blamed. Blame kills communication and coopreration.

Blame Attempts to Remove Culpability 

Blame is the simplest form of saying “not me.” When you search for blame in others, you are trying to affix attention on what they did to divert attention, including your own, from what could have been done differently. In politics, it is the infamous witch-hunt, searching for someone else to look bad in order to gain recognition somewhere else. Bottom line, blame attempts to remove one’s culpability.

Watch: Are you able to demonostrate your value to your organization?

Change Your Approach

Obviously, the best solution is to address problems before they happen. Inevitably, though, the occasional issue sneaks past even the most cautious eye and you are faced with a major problem. To reduce the pain, leaders must set the proper tone.

  • Ask your team how to fix the issue. Your first action should be to listen to your team. More often than not, they will understand the problem and have multiple ways to address it. Your job will be to coach them through selecting the proper solution.
  •  Assign an objective party to look for root causes. If your team is having difficulty finding the solution, they probably fail to fully understand the problems or the options to solve it. Often this is because they are too close to the issue and need a fresh set of eyes looking at it. Using an objective third party to assess the situation can provide amazing results. At times, being removed from the situation is all you need to see the answer.
  • Apply the correct level of governance. Depending on the type of issue, some oversight or additional process can help avoid problems in the future. Use an abundance of caution and prudence when applying process. Solving every problem with process creates bureaucracies. If a problem has a low likelihood of reoccurring, think twice about applying process. If the people who committed the error do not have the skills to do the job, replace them with people who can do the job. Process cannot take the place of intelligence.
  • Provide clear direction. People want to please their leadership. Setting lofty stretch goals and not being clear on priorities is the precursor for failure. They will attempt to achieve everything and fail at most. Make sure people know what the goals are, how their goals directly relate, and how they need to help others achieve their goals. It encourages teamwork and the stretch goals come naturally.
  • Distribute decision-making authority. Centralized decision making is cumbersome, slow, and error prone. Distributing authority requires mutual-trust and ensuring the people throughout the organization have a complete understanding of the organization’s goals. The benefits are huge since it empowers the team and accelerates your organization’s progress.

In the End It Is about People

Blame destroys trust, without trust you lose good employees. Without good employees, you will not succeed. Ergo, blame begets failure. Whether you are a CEO or a project manager, a leader’s job is to build a culture that rises above blame and functions on responsibility, accountability, and trust. To build this culture, you need to surround yourself with people who hold these same core values. If you feel you must fire someone, fire the person who violates these principles.

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About The Author

Todd C. Williams is the founder and president of eCameron, Inc. (, they help companies make their vision profitable. He has over 25 years of experience in recovering failing projects, preventing their failure, and applying those lessons to help other organizations fulfill their strategic goals. He has helped his clients through strategic planning facilitation, setting up and running operations, IT leadership, and as an expert witness. He is the author of Rescue the Problem Project: A Complete Guide to Identifying, Preventing, and Recovering from Project Failure and can be found on LinkedIn (, Twitter (, Facebook ( ), by phone: +1 (360) 834-7361, or email:

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