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Lessons Learned from “Failed” Projects

We’ve all had group projects that haven’t gone quite as we would have hoped. In the end, some of the failed projects we participated in can lead to some incredible insights and help us grow as professionals and leaders. Based on my experiences in projects and working on teams, here are a few of my top lessons learned:

1. Make a commitment to the team; not your individual needs

I’ve been on projects when people are looking just to advance themselves or be the leader from the get-go. I love working with people who are going to challenge me and push me as an individual, but, what is wrong is when people are competitive to other team members, instead of pushing the work of the team forward and acting out of self interest. In the end, it will benefit everyone on the team much more to produce a great product and have something to reference back too, instead of someone trying to be in control and damaging morale.

2. Periodic check-points are helpful, stick to your plans

Find a time when everyone is available to meet and stick to that time. Try to avoid getting into the scenario when you have to keep moving things around, consistency is good for check-up meetings.

3. If everyone is getting a long and things are great – look a little closer

Sounds a little goofy – but sometimes when everyone is getting along you are just going through the motions. For groups that have been working together for awhile, challenge the status quo (constructively) and look for ways to improve. This does not necessarily mean re-inventing the wheel, but it could mean finding quick and easy fixes to challenges. I’m not recommending people start fighting and throwing elbows, but showing some emotion is a sign people are invested. Just keep it constructive.

4. Get people working on something they really care about

People need to feel invested in the project, so delegate work out with things they have a passion for and care about. The huge benefit of the group is that you learn from everyone’s expertise, so make sure people’s skills are being put to use.

5. Tie your project into a larger scope, give some perspective and meaning to the work

Similar to number four, people want to know that a project has a meaning and will make an impact. Tie the project into your overall agencies/organizational goals, your yearly benchmarks, anything that shows the project, once completed, is contributing to meeting a larger initiative.


There are a lot of lessons that you can learn from groups, what are some of your lessons?



This post is brought to you by the GovLoop Project Management Council. The mission of this council is to provide you with information and resources to help improve government. Visit the GovLoop Project Management Council to learn more.

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Profile Photo Corey McCarren

I’ve done Model United Nations several times, and because it’s in essence a competition, people do NOT follow your first point. It’s understandable, and a sad fact that in Model UN aggressiveness is necessary to get awards, but it makes the whole experience extraordinarily stressful. Everyone, including myself and my group, try to run other teams over and push them around to further our agendas (which trust me, isn’t easy when you’re the Republic of Moldova trying to work with the European Union) – as politely as possible.

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Profile Photo Andy Gravatt

Number 3 is not only something that you need to concentrate on in the team aspect of a project. Whenever you start to relax too much as a PM, some red flags need to go up. One of the reason projects often fail is that once the hard work of planning the project is complete, the PM goes on autopilot. Project management is an active role that requires constant diligence. OK, OK, you can take off one weekend a month, if things are going exceptionally well. :-)

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Profile Photo Patrick Fiorenza

That is a great point, Andy – thanks for your comment. Really like the analogy of going on autopilot while running a project. It’s a tough balance to find, because you do need to work in those mental breaks, but it’s hard to get out of a routine with a group once the group dynamics settles in.

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Profile Photo Lindsey Tepe

Along with your first point, some of the best collaborative teams I have ever worked with tend to spend a significant amount of time and energy up front establishing buy-in. There are many ways to accomplish the same goals, and talking through these various approaches and agreeing on the best course of action up front can make the experience much smoother.

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Profile Photo Patrick Fiorenza

Couldn’t agree more, Lindsey – that is especially important when you are working on projects with tight timelines. Having and sharing a common vision is critical. Thanks for the comment.

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Profile Photo Josh Nankivel

Great list Pat. I’ll add a few related lessons learned:

  1. The definition of ‘done’ should be crystal clear for every deliverable.
  2. At the same time, face the reality that needs and understanding among stakeholders change over time, and so structure your project work for progressive elaboration – whether it’s waterfall, lean, agile, or some hybrid methodology.
  3. With # 2 in mind, your change process should ensure that a) change requests are well quantified, b) all key stakeholders and decision makers approve changes, c) the process overhead of changes is as lean as can be while still ensuring rigorous change control.
  4. Configuration Management is DIFFERENT from Change Management – don’t conflate the two.
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