Strategy & Marketing

Know When To Walk Away From A Bad Project

Business, media, nonprofit, and church leaders across the country invest in new projects everyday. The level of risk varies, but one thing is common to all – at some point, the leader needs to make a decision to stay in for the long haul, or cut the losses and call it quits.  The problem is – how do you know if your project is in trouble? What are the key indicators that something serious is going wrong?

In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger was launched over the objections of engineers who described a high probability of catastrophic failure. In spite of those warnings, senior NASA managers authorized the launch, and it exploded 73 seconds into its flight.

The Wall Street Journal reported that, “In the last week of September 2013, a “pre-flight checklist” indicated that 41 of the 91 functions for which a key contractor was responsible were not working. Another checklist prepared a week later showed serious, and in five cases critical, defects in functions previously categorized as working. Nonetheless, the website was launched on Oct. 1 and failed almost immediately.”

In far too many cases, political, financial, or time pressure causes unready or ill-conceived projects to move forward – often to disastrous failure. So what should leaders be looking for? What are the warning signs that would cause us to put things on HOLD?

1) It may be time to stop when the boss isn’t listening or aware of the process.  If the leader is detached or worse – keeping his or her distance in case of failure – that’s a bad sign.

2) When the leader is immune to criticism or insulated from reality.  If the team is presenting realistic reasons for concern, and yet the leader ignores the team, it’s time for a reality check. This often happens when Christian leaders use the “God told me to do it” line. God may have indeed given you the vision, but that doesn’t mean to ignore the counsel of trusted advisors.

3) When the pressure to meet deadlines overrides evidence that the project isn’t ready.  Deadlines matter, but not at the expense of proper execution. Mark Rutland puts it this way: “Why are we hurrying? This is the most challenging of all the questions in the path to roll out. What is the rush? Are we afraid the competition will get the drop on us? This is a genuine issue, of course, but it is not necessarily the final answer. Yes, it’s nice to be first to market. However, caution may allow us to avoid some mistakes the competition will make and may give us time to put out a better product.”  See more details here.

4) As you get closer to the launch, if the team loses their enthusiasm, then it’s time to re-think.  In many cases, you won’t be able to define the problem, but if that many good people start getting the willies, then something may be wrong.

5) Don’t let the pressure to perform on schedule override your ability to execute the project well.  You can’t always “Fix it in post” as we say in TV. It’s been years since the Obamacare website was launched, and the original catastrophic roll-out is still causing problems, and the poor execution has undermined numerous Democratic political campaigns. Many times the cost to fix a bad project launch is far more expensive than the launch itself. Getting it right the first time saves untold grief, consumer trust, and money in the long run.

Hope isn’t a strategy for launching projects.  It takes a leader that is on task, aware of the challenges, and watching the bottom line to execute well. Don’t take chances. If the red warning lights start flashing, then it’s time to make a change.

Think for a moment: Are you involved right now in any projects where the red flags above are happening?  Or have you ever been involved in a past project where you saw trouble coming, but the leader ignored it? What happened?

I’d love to hear your experience…

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  1. The poem speaks for some dead folk I know.

    “Forward, the Light Brigade!”
    Was there a man dismayed?
    Not though the soldier knew
    Someone had blundered.
    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do and die.
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

    Excerpt The Charge of the Light Brigade
    By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

  2. Been there, done that. Great article, Phil!

    Here’s my experience:
    1. Projects were launched but not complete or done with excellence. This is disappointing to watch because of what it could have been had it had the time to process completely.
    2. Productions were performed, but the staff had to work 24/7 for weeks to pull it off.
    3. Production event opened, but saying “yes” to what appears to be minor tweaks, caused a ripple effect in production values.
    4. When a leader has thier foot on the accelerator at 100 MPH creating new “stuff” that has to happen NOW to keep up with the “Jones'”, the staff who is trying to stay ahead of him, get run over eventually. Moral takes a dive.
    5. “God told me to change the direction” (repeatedly), everyone flies by the seat of their pants. When it turns out decent, the likelihood of God telling the leader that again increases greatly. The staff wonders why they should prepare for much of anything when there’s a chance their work will be tossed out. They’re getting paid for it, but it ultimately affects employee moral. I liken it to digging holes just for the sake of digging.
    6. Long awaited launch day (lots of money invested, staff prepared for months) finally arrives, only to have the leader ignore the launch and leave the people guessing about all the visible changes.
    7. Project launch with lots of changes and/or big changes in the final hour, increases the chance of a poor launch.
    8. If a leader is lacking in clear communication to staff, a launch can either be delayed, fail, or sputter publically.

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