When a Project Goes Bad — Reviewing your Failures

At least it’s over

We all have failures. It may be a traditional “death march”, or something more
subtle such as not achieving the smooth work flow process we had hoped to manage this time, or even just taking longer to deliver than expected. If it is important to review projects that went well to ensure we can repeat and improve, then it is doubly so to look at ones that were less than ideal.

However, a lot of consultants who do this type of review don’t get much of anything out of it. Instead of stepping back and make an honest, neutral assessment, they mark the problems up to a bad client who didn’t deliver specifications on time, constantly changed their mind, didn’t respond promptly, and a host of other problems. With clients like that, how can you hope to be successful?

Remember the old adage, “Practice doesn’t make perfect — perfect practice makes perfect”?

It’s the same thing with reviewing your failures. If you review them with the idea, “It failed because my client was stupid”, you may as well not even bother at all. Chances are, your client was only partly to blame, and you’ll never discover those things that were your own fault or be able to take action to prevent them from failing again. Your consulting career will be a series of spinning your wheels, hoping to get lucky with good clients and being miserable when you don’t.

Instead of this point of view, assume everything was your fault. Go ahead — this is only between you and yourself. No silly blame games here. Identify as many of the failures as you can, and look at each one of them as though you were the one who didn’t communicate, was unreasonable, or didn’t come up with “the goods”. This is going to lead you down an interesting path.

You’re giving me the “It’s not you, it’s me” routine?

First of all, you’re probably going to end up admitting to yourself that a certain number of the failures really were your fault. Sometimes it isn’t “despite our best efforts”. Sometimes our effort just wasn’t very good. If this is the case, after the dust has settled, write a note to your (now former) client. Tell them, “I wasn’t very good at X, Y and Z, and I think that led to a lot of our difficulties.” Not very many people apologize or take ownership of failures these days; you might be amazed at what comes of it.

When you’ve cleared those out, you’re going to find that many issues that could have been repaired had you identified and acted on them in time. Remember, depending on the type of client you are working with, you probably have much more experience doing this than they do. The burden is not always split fifty-fifty to recognize and deal with conflicts. You may have to take this on yourself, even if it doesn’t feel fair. If you are having communication problems, speak up. If you feel things are drifting away from the original plan, write a clarifying email. The one commonality in all of your projects is you — you’ve seen all these issues before, and should know how to spot and diffuse them before they become problems.

With the remaining issues, you’ll find things where the client did not fully understand where the line was on what they were paying for, or was simply making unreasonable demands. In these cases, did you try to determine what was reasonable and negotiate to provide that, or simply turn your back on them? Perhaps they were demanding an extra service you don’t normally provide, but you could have introduced them to someone. Or the “scope creep” could have been turned into a paid extension on the work. Did you miss an opportunity?

There will be clients, however, who were simply toxic or unwilling to work with you to find solutions. Walk away. Walk away from them, and then don’t look back or think about them any more. Accept the fact that this will happen sometimes and don’t let it affect your ability to move forward.

Whatever the case, learn from it. See where you need more clarity in your contract terms, how to spot a bad customer before signing, or what you can do to improve your own communications. Don’t let a failure become a waste of your time!

This was an excerpt from my free eBook What Mom Forgot to Tell You about Remote and Freelance Work, a small bit of writing I did to try to help people make their way through what can often be a tremendously difficult career choice— freelancing. At 44 pages short, I invite you to grab a free copy and give it a read. Let me know if you find anything helpful in it!