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The Best Steps You Can Take When You Know a Project Is Bad

Most projects and initiatives start out with carefully thought-out plans and a decent chance of success. But every once in a while, you get that sinking feeling that something is heading for a flop: not the kind of failure that comes from a reasonable experiment or despite a good effort, but one that results from misfires due to errors in analysis or lack of executional capability.

Who has the responsibility to nix a bad project or debunk an unrealistic forecast? And if you see a plan going off the rails, smell a fiasco in the making, or sense a significant risk, is it your job to speak up? By all means, yes.

Blow the Whistle – Even If It’s on Yourself

If it’s actually your plan that seems to be going wrong, it’ll be easier to call out the need for change. Draft scenarios or diagram what’s likely to blow up or peter out, and make a new business case for adjusting your goal, approach, or implementation. To maintain your credibility, it’s crucial to propose alternatives and show why they’re better than your original approach, as well as to explain how the situation has changed and why you didn’t see the plan’s flaws or pitfalls upfront.

Of course, you may feel anxious or awkward about raising these problems after you’ve just been the project’s eager champion. But as the owner of the initiative, once you see that there’s the possibility of a better outcome for stakeholders, you’re certainly obligated to say so.

Raise the Flag Early

If you’re a good colleague in an adjacent space, and you have the perspective to see what’s about to go wrong, you can build organizational credibility by kindly pointing it out. This is immeasurably more valuable if you raise the flag before the 11th hour and not in a large public meeting, as some grenade-throwers are inclined to do, whether out of a misplaced sense of heroics or pure desperation.

The marketing director of one of my clients once told me that “It’s a director’s job” to identify and declare when a project is going awry. Directors sit in the right spot: They’re close enough to the actual work to know what’s really happening, and near enough to senior leadership to know what needs to happen.

This director’s assessment and willingness to take on the challenge of speaking up made a real impression on me. He was explicit that as the director associated with a failing project, that failure would be on you if you didn’t get the issue on the table promptly. Not all directors are willing to take this kind of risk; in fact, many senior executives don’t have the self-confidence or ethical drive to do so because they’re more concerned about preserving their turf, budgets, or image of infallibility.

Real Leadership May Require Swimming Against the Tide

As an external advisor, it can be easier for me to notice a plan’s weaknesses and risks. I ask leading questions about the validity of data, reasons for choices, and likelihood of projected conclusions actually coming to pass. In many cases, the executive in charge will rethink and try to generate more effective alternatives to the overall approach, or at least find ways to adjust around the edges to reduce the risk.

The challenge is that when a plan is already underway — sometimes even once it’s only been proposed — we have a bias toward seeing it through. It isn’t easy to decide whether an undertaking is salvageable, or if you actually need to blow the whistle to prevent a massive disaster. Not only does it take hard mental work, but your decision can also jeopardize significant political or personal capital.

There will always be people sniping on the sidelines. The people who take shots are usually trying to earn points or prove their own superiority. But negativity without helpful, realistic alternatives rarely fosters a successful outcome or much admiration. Being willing to go against the flow to point out flaws and prepare for the better way is real leadership, whether the original plan is yours or not.

Onward and upward —


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