project failure

You’re Late! 5 Tips to Stave off Project Failure

Project failure – two words that keep most managers up all night. There is hardly a manager out there who can deliver on time every time. All too often, we overpromise to score a new project only to fall short. Be it unabashed optimism, ego or strategic oversight, there’s always something waiting to derail days, weeks sometimes even months worth of effort.

There is a lot of advice floating out there on how to see a project through, but what do you do when through no fault of your own, you overshoot the deadline? Does this mean it’s time to sound the death knell?


While following a plan to the tee is always desirable, we often forget that our team members and clients are people who know the trappings of humanity all too well. So, if you have ever exceeded a deadline (or might someday) then here are a few strategies to get you out of dodge real quick.

>> Recommended reading: Managing Risk Within Project Management

1. Ask Management/Clients for a Deadline Extension

Before asking for a deadline extension, sit down with your team and find how much time is required. As further extensions are obviously not desirable, it’s best to make as honest an appraisal as possible. So, if the revisions require at least a week, then ask for a week. It is best to not ask for one day at a time as it will lead to an even poorer impression, even if you deliver early.

This is also the perfect time to try out the Scotty principle. In hit Science fiction series Star Trek, Scotty, Enterprise’s chief engineer would always inflate the required time by a factor of four when asked for one of his miracles by Kirk. Works wonders in real life, too. When giving an original estimate, consider adding 25%-50% of the original estimate to give yourself some wiggle room. Practicing the principle when negotiating the project can help you avoid project failure altogether.

2. Reprioritize Existing Resources

So, your clients have agreed to your deadline extension request. Phew! But, remember that project failure can still happen. Suffice to say, you should try and get as much help as possible to hit the delivery date. If you have more hands around the office, ask them to chime in. Projects that do not have upcoming delivery windows can be temporarily shelved in favor of your present predicament.

Similarly, certain project aspects can be deprioritized over more important deliverables. Ask yourself what all features the client must see at the delivery date. Almost all projects have non-critical “add-ons” that are more of a bonus feature and which can be pushed back further in favor of more important aspects.

Assessing project features is no doubt a hard task as everything often seems to be the number one priority when starting out.You can start by making a list of features and then ranking them as either important or urgent. The Eisenhower Matrix ranks tasks across four quadrants based on their urgency and can be a valuable tool to stop project failure here:

eisenhower matrix

It also goes without saying that you should inform your client/management of  your decision to remove non-critical features from the upcoming delivery window as they will believe that the complete project is due on the new deadline.

>> Recommended reading: Why Implementing Project Management Tools is Beneficial

3. Hire Freelancers/Contractors to Speed Things Up

As you are dealing with a one-off situation, spending a little extra on hired help is highly advisable. Going through normal recruitment channels can be too slow here since hiring people for onsite work usually takes a month or two. Instead, you can try hiring freelancers online.

The gig economy is experiencing a boom and there is quite a lot of talent out there provided you know where to look. Quite a number of sites like Craigslist, Upwork, Github Jobs and Toptal allow you to discover, qualify and hire freelance developers and designers from all around the world. Freelancers almost always work on a project basis so they are well familiar with short bursts of work making them ideal for deadline intensive projects.

Good quality freelancers usually command a better price too, and since you’d rather not find the hard way that your selected person was not up to the job, it’s best to pay upfront. If the threat of an impending project failure isn’t looming over, then you can make a list of freelancers right now and save time down the line.

4. Don’t Rush, It Will Only Make Project Failure all the More Inevitable!

Rushing through projects is a bad idea as it is, however, when pressed for time, we tend to fall into this trap even more easily. In their hit game Portal, Valve software decided to implement a simple countdown timer at the end level instead of a more complicated game mechanic as they found time pressure made it seem harder than it actually was, forcing players to make elementary mistakes. The strategy worked too as the game was extremely well received.

While the sudden death like situation of a possible project failure can seem daunting, know that the tasks ahead will require the same amount of work as originally thought. Instead of trying to rush through each deliverable, make an honest appraisal of how long newly added tasks will take and then commit to it. Provided you focus on critical tasks and have allocated a little extra time à la Scotty principle, you should have enough to finish and review your project before dispatching it.

>> Recommended reading: Work overload: an issue that your business can learn to work around

5. Record Everything. Really. EVERYTHING!

Part of managing a crisis is ensuring it never happens again. An overshot deadline is no doubt undesirable, but in the process of beating it, teams often discover new potential and insights, too.

For instance, dynamically reallocating company resources during such times can be carried out during regular intervals for heightened productivity. Similarly, hiring freelancers for certain projects can help companies cut costs significantly. Finally, keeping your cool during tense periods can be a very valuable experience in itself. Problems such as impending project failure is the best time to test a crisis management program as well.

However, all these advantages will only be ripe for the plucking if all aspects of a project are properly recorded for future reference. A time management system such as is the perfect tool for helping managers organize their workflow, control time and track deadlines through every step of the way.

Many companies struggle endlessly thanks to antiquated spreadsheets and email systems which make communication and version control complicated. Cloud based productivity tools like consolidate all decisions in one easy to access location and track all aspects of their tasks through automated spreadsheets in real time.

Concluding Thoughts

While project failure is something we all try and avoid like the plague, truth is, it’s bound to happen.  So, even though there is good data to suggest that odds are a project is bound to fail, managers and teams often jump into them with unfounded optimism and unbridled enthusiasm. No doubt both are needed, however, when not tempered by rational, unbiased critique, can backfire. It is vital that companies learn from past projects to ensure the same mistakes are never committed twice.

Instead of beating up oneself up when something does go wrong, it’s better to look at it as a learning experience. Chances are you will find hidden efficiencies within your team and end up with more skills to beat the deadline even faster next time around.

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