Projects crash and burn, businesses fail, and sales decline. It’s happens. If you’re constantly on the front lines or spearheading things, it probably happens a lot. The thing is, it’s probably your fault. That’s what I tell myself and here’s why: If you want credit when things go well, you also get credit when they don’t.
A recent project reminded me of this. It’s a story you’ve probably heard before: missed deadline, scope changed, scope is inadequate, team member gets flaky, etc. It happens in PTAs, government offices, and corporate America every day. There was nothing special or unusual about it.
How you handle a failing project can set you apart from others. Getting a project back on track and pushing through even when it’s painful requires a fortitude that many people lack. Avoiding that same mistake next time is the stuff champions are made of. That’s why how you approach it is critical.
If my first reaction was to be defensive and focus on everyone one and every thing else, I’d never get anywhere. Focussing on other people’s failures keeps me from addressing my own. My approach is to question myself. “What went wrong? What could I have done about it?”. It’s reflection. If someone else makes a mistake, I wonder if I could have caught it. I wonder if I could have turned it around. I try not to let myself off the hook with excuses like who’s responsibility it was. I never think of my role when I want something; I go for it. Likewise, if I see a problem, I should try to deal with it. I want the things I work on to be successful regardless of the circumstances. That means:
- If the scope isn’t well defined, I better refine it no matter who’s job it is.
- If someone is getting flaky, I need to recognize it quickly and have a backup plan.
- If no one is researching, I better research.
Think of it this way. We’re all playing soccer. I’m on the right wing and the guy I’m guarding breaks away. Do you watch our opponent take the ball to the goal because I was out of position or do you get in front of him and stop the attack? Everyone in the project is working towards a win. You have to be ready and willing to pick up the slack if you want to be associated with more successes than failures.
Of course other people make mistakes. It’s just not enough to blame them and it’s rarely productive. Once you’ve fully identified yours and gotten past your emotions you can start worrying about others. I still tend to avoid blaming them. You have to know when people can take criticism. The timing is tricky. Most of the time, I just think about how I can help us avoid problems on the next project and wait until opportunity presents itself.
We all want to win but winning doesn’t mean being perfect. It means succeeding more than you fail. It requires working hard, trying, and improving. If you’re always upping your game and providing real value, you’re on the right path. And if you’re blaming other people for your project’s failures, you’re not.