Boy, Did I Screw Up My Project . . . and How You Can, Too!


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Do your colleagues run screaming from the conference room right before you give your monthly report?

If so, you have a hint something’s wrong. Your suspicions will be confirmed when an executive tells you “we don’t like the changes you’re recommending, so we’ve decided to take a different direction on our project. That direction doesn’t include you.” For emphasis, I’ll include one additional word, “Period.” If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.

Was it because I forgot to bring donuts to the last meeting? Was it because I promoted implementing a social-media embedded communications and revenue-generation strategy that was aligned with the organization’s mission—or so I thought? Was it all the indecipherable consultant babble and social media-isms that I packed into my emails and verbal discourse?

No matter. Assuming there’s purpose, cooperation, and camaraderie, no issue is insurmountable! We might have our differences, but everyone sings Kum-by-yah around the conference table, right? Wrong-o! And executing a plan under those assumptions is precisely where the trouble begins in this real-world case.

Here are the client facts, which for brevity I’ll present in PowerPoint form to protect the innocent—or guilty—depending on your point of view:

• Non-profit organization.
• At growth “inflection point.”
• Mission: Launch new communications department.
• Lots of things to go catastrophically wrong.

I just now added the last bullet because it’s crystal clear in hindsight. You already know that it’s misplaced. Its proper position is Bullet #1 in the pre-project presentation! Not to shake people up, but because it’s life!

So I won’t tiptoe around my project’s outcome. As you guessed, it tanked, miserably. But I quickly dusted myself off, and after some deep introspection, I formulated a personal list of woulda-coulda-shoulda‘s that will help me manage better in the future. Here’s hoping they’ll help you, too:

1. Sell, sell, sell! Or, if you’re a rower, stroke, stroke, stroke! For the project leader, everyone is important, even the most ardent, shrill, bombastic detractor. Love people! Make them feel good! Remind them how important their opinion is for the project’s success, even if it’s not. Put them on a pedestal, and make sure it’s not a gallows. Over time, naysayers who naysay for the pleasure of naysaying will find the gallows on their own.

2. When things are significantly wrong, don’t just take a “time out,” make a “hard stop” until the issue is acknowledged and addressed. What do I mean by significantly wrong? I won’t tell you now, because it takes too many words, and there’s too little space. Let’s just say that knowing very wrong when you see it is a valuable skill to bring to any endeavor. And a hard stop is the best action in every instance, including when executive committee members view your project role in ways that are diametrically opposed to those of the CEO. Or if the CEO changes your mission goals every Monday. Call it a “non-starter.” Call it a “hard stop.” But call it!

3. Don’t stick to your guns. Inflexible resolve and stubbornness are valued qualities in sports stars, but they can backfire on leaders. I know, I know—I’m a hypocrite because I just said to make a hard stop when things go significantly wrong. Can you do both? Yes! –If you ask yourself “can I lose this battle and still win the war?” If the answer is “yes,” cut everybody some slack. But if the answer is “no,” please see #2, above.

4. Anecdotal evidence provides a mushy foundation for strategy. The problem is, everyone brings opinions about The Strategy, along with reams of anecdotal evidence to support why their opinion is better than everyone else’s—including yours. “My brother-in-law uses Facebook, and he says . . .” “My neighbor runs a business and would never use Twitter to . . .” You get the picture. Spot on, at least for the brother-in-law and neighbor. Tell your colleagues you won’t discount the data. Anecdotes are never wrong. But the conclusions people draw from them often are. Insist on learning from sound research before formulating a strategy. Your colleagues will respect you for it, and you will be spared from gobs of forwarded email that won’t bring you closer to sound decisions.

5. Eschew hubris. Introduce a new entity, role, committee, or project into an organization, and count the number of times you hear “That’s not what we’re about,” “The way we’ve always done it is . . .” “When I ran that area, I . . .” “We need to educate people about why we’re . . . ” If face-to-face conversations were minable as on Twitter, you’ll find self-satisfaction under “trending topics.” Fight it. Hubris will kill a project as surely as a sex scandalsans the titillation. Call out when you hear it—but in a nice way (see #1).

6. Don’t shoulder people’s skittishness, nervousness, and fear. Sometimes, co-workers greet change and new ideas with the same enthusiasm as a pending root canal, but they dance around the issues. They will try to transfer their anxiety to you, saying “what you want to do will never work in our department,” adding, “now, please disappear!” But don’t, my friend, for you must always remember that skittishness is their problem, not yours. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and say three times, “I will be their trusted confidante.” Then ask them, “how long have you been nervous?” Look into their eyes. Hold their hand. Show concern. Speak softly. Call them “dear.” The discussion will change as they see you are not their enemy, but a more like a therapist without the hourly fee.

7. Think systematically–and never stray! In any organization-wide project, change, turf battles, and micromanagement are linked. Go ahead, try to rip them apart. I bet you can’t! You might hear, “Build the website, but let’s put off that social media thing, for now.” Hmmmm. Don’t acquiesce! Avoid taking the path of least resistance, unless you get joy from building apparatuses that don’t work. You might ask “What you’re asking me to do is like building a car, but not concerning myself with the braking and steering systems—just concentrate on the engine and drive train, right?” If the answer you get is “yes,” please read #2 above.

Major project failures don’t happen every day, so never squander the opportunity to learn from them. Seven project lessons learned from major project gotchas. Some of the issues are timeless, some are new. After all, every project brings new politics, new variables, and new challenges. Trust that my next list will be different from this one!

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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