Lessons From Failure

I wrote a cathartic article for the Adaptive Path newsletter a few weeks ago wherein I gazed deep into my own navel and tried to make sense of some recent challenging project experiences.  I’m reproducing the article here because this blog is the Official Record of Humiliation and Growth, Leah Buley style. (Also, because Chris is sick of looking at pictures of my coworkers making dumb faces.)

How to Recover From Project Failures
A Disaster Action Plan

Not long ago, I found myself sitting in a client conference room, moments before a meeting— summoning every trick of breath and mind control that I could think of to keep myself from crying.  How had I gotten here? What had gone wrong? And more importantly, what could I do to put things back on track?

My friends, I was in the project soup.

We’ve all been here before. That redesign that you began with such optimism has become troubled, sickly, hard to maneuver. First it was small things: a few discussions with thoughtful but collegial disagreement, then a growing sense of strife. Soon you’re mumbling, “Who the hell does he think he is?" after every meeting.  Eventually, you’re in an outright downward spiral with your project timeline, your team relationships, and the quality of your work all crashing together with swift and certain doom.

The good news is this situation is salvageable. Here’s how.

Step 1: Figure out what’s really going wrong.

Once things start to slip, the practical, interpersonal, and creative issues get so entangled that unraveling them can feel next to impossible. But from what I’ve seen, many project problems fall into just a few categories:

Absence of Trust Even in the friendliest group of people, if this is your first time working together, there hasn’t been an opportunity for trust to grow yet. So when things are unclear or worries arise, there’s a layer of dramatic anticipation as everyone on the team watches to see which way things will go. Will it be a swift, easy resolution? (Trust grows.)  Will it be a difficult, unsatisfactory resolution? (Trust diminishes.) But if questions or worries remain open as the work itself moves forward in an attempt to resolve them — a very common situation on design projects — the anticipation is never dispelled, and bit-by-bit it can curdle into tension as “we’ll wait and see" turns into “we haven’t seen it yet."

Work Not Moving Fast Enough  — In design projects, it can take a while to get from understanding the problem to figuring out what you’re going to do about it. If people on the team are unfamiliar with how this design process works, it’s natural for them to get antsy and worried. This can be compounded if you’re also dealing with the issue above: they don’t quite know what you’re doing and they don’t yet trust that you’re in charge of things on your end.  Often, simply showing your work to date (or hurrying a little to make the design more real) will quell concerns.

Need For Better Continuity in Deliverables  — Much as project sponsors and team members are excited about the prospect of a new design, they may not have a clear picture of the project outcome. (Or, the picture in their heads may be quite different from the one in yours.) In that situation, it’s natural to focus on the deliverables as the outcome, and measure the progress of the project by the progress of deliverables.  You’ll be doing your client and yourself a big favor if you can demonstrate continuity in thinking in the evolution of each deliverable and in the handoffs from one to the other.

Communication Breakdown  — Who among us hasn’t entertained a perverse fantasy to carry a secret audio recorder to capture an accurate record of each conversation? There’s nothing more frustrating than discovering that someone has a completely different memory of a conversation that you were both in.  The same happens on projects.  It’s all too easy for people to walk away from a discussion with very different memories of what was agreed to. Sending around notes after each meeting with a recap of major decisions and next steps can help everyone remember things the same way.

Notice that I didn’t list quality here. It’s true, in very rare circumstances, that quality of the work is a problem. But I have found that this is extremely uncommon. Most of the time, once the work gets rolling, people are excited to see the results. The real sticky wickets in project work are interpersonal. Which means, for better or worse, the solutions must be as well.

To figure out what your problem is, you might just have to ask.

Be Direct — if your relationship will allow it, talk directly to the people on the project team where you’re feeling the tension, and tell them what you’re seeing and why it concerns you. In my case, I cornered my teammate in a hallway and said, “Um, things feel weird?" That’s probably not the most adult and in-charge way of handling things, but at least it got the conversation going. If you have the presence of mind, maybe plan out how you want to approach the conversation and what you want to say in advance. Don’t expect that you have to solve everything in that conversation. The goal should be simply to assess whether what you’re feeling is real, and to get as specific as possible about what the issues are.

Be Introspective  — Try this. Take a pad of post-it notes, and write the name of each major phase, deliverable, or part of a system you’re working on — one item per post-it note.  Lay them all out in front of you.  Now put a star on any post-it where you know people are less than satisfied and (this is harder) put a star on any post-it where you yourself know that something is problematic, incomplete, or not fully thought out. For everyone that has a star, write down what you think the problem is. Then, for each one, write down one idea for a solution.

Get Help  — If you can’t see the problem and for whatever reason talking directly with the person you’re having conflicts with won’t work, enlist the help of a buddy who can be a neutral fact gatherer for you. Your boss is a good candidate for this, or maybe your project manager.

Step 2: Take actions to correct it.

Once you have a handle on what’s wrong, you’re in a much better position to do something it.

To get ourselves back on track, we hosted a Project Realignment Workshop. Notice I didn’t says Project Realignment Meeting. The goal here is not to ruminate over everything that’s been going wrong. That can cause the team to further stew in their resentments. Here, we want to be constructive and forward looking in assessing where we stand, and figuring out how we’re going to move the work forward with transparency and a shared purpose. Those are the things that will bring trust, speed, and continuity, and good communications to the project.

Here’s how to run a Project Realignment Workshop:

1. Find a room with a lot of wall space

2. Section up the space on the wall so that you have a spot for each deliverable and/or phase of the work. (We used big sticky notes, because we can move them around if we need to.)

3. Under each section, we tacked up the latest version of the deliverable (and any previous versions that still contained unresolved issues.)

4. Block off as much time as you can get from the team for a work session.  (We blocked off a full afternoon: four hot and stuffy but well-worth-it hours.)

5. In the work session walk through each of the phases and/or deliverables from beginning to end.

6. For each item on the wall, Add a sticky note for every open issue, unanswered question, or major thing still to be figured out.

7. Revisit the project schedule. Knowing what you know now about the number of remaining issues and the work still be done, have an honest conversation about whether it needs to be adjusted. Don’t be afraid to blow your project plan if that’s what it takes.

8. Lastly, agree on the form that reviews and hand-offs will take going forward. Agree on how many review cycles a deliverable will have before it’s finished, and on a protocol for capturing and resolving feedback. (Ideally, this should all have been done at the beginning of the project, but if it didn’t happen then make sure it happens now. Or if the plan you started out with isn’t working, make it more realistic. In our case, we originally assumed that one review cycle would suffice. It turned out that we needed one review cycle at several levels in the organization, so in our new plan, we made sure we factored in for the three review cycles that would be necessary to move the design up the chain of command.)

A Project Realignment Workshop may sound like a big effort, but it works. In our case, it helped the whole team understand the total state of our work to date, and identify where we needed to re-focus our efforts to move the work forward. Looking to the wall of deliverables, we were also able to visualize the work still to be done and put specific estimates around it.

Step 3: Learn from your mistakes.

I’ll admit it: after this experience, I was a bit shaken. I blamed myself for allowing the situation to get out of hand in the first place, and I questioned whether I simply lacked the foresight and leadership skills for project success.

Thankfully, with the help of my advocate, I was able to recognize this as a learning opportunity. He suggested that I start observing other people who I thought of as good leaders, and writing down what they did that worked well in a “leadership notebook."  Since then, I’ve been carrying my little black leadership notebook with me everywhere I go. Here’s one from just the other day.

Design Quote