How to cope and bounce back from a failing IT project

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How do you cope with a project that isn't going as planned? The time to do that is before problems start happening, according to Paul Vienneau, CTO of payment technology company Cayan. In an interview with The Enterprisers Project, Vienneau explains how to prepare for the possibility of delays before they occur.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): How can you tell when a project is running into trouble?

Paul Vienneau: Be it initiatives I've personally been involved in or witnessed from afar, projects seldom nose-dive within a 24-hour period. The writing is typically on the wall well before trouble is officially declared. As soon as project management solutions found the Web, transparency into project wellness took a significant leap forward. These days with dashboards, push notifications, and scheduled reports, it's almost impossible to not be notified in near real-time. 

TEP: When is the right time to inform business stakeholders that there's a problem?

Vienneau: We're a big proponent of acceptance through involvement – giving stakeholders complete transparency into the day-to-day health of an initiative. And when it's time to signal the alarm, they are not startled. You also don't fret about messaging since they've been active participants along the journey and are inherently aware of the circumstances.

TEP: What advice would you give other CIOs and CTOs about dealing with a failing project or initiative?

Vienneau: Don't panic. We know that more often than not, projects of moderate or greater complexity are going to encounter the unexpected. There are just too many variants in play to consistently have a deterministic strategy from kick-off. Remember, however, failing doesn't have to be fatal. A great strategy starts early with laying a foundation of awareness within the organization regarding those pesky and unpredictable influences that afflict all projects – people, teams, requirements, perceptions, etc. Giving stakeholders an appreciation of these facets sets expectations up front. These are not fatalistic, nor are they a future "Get Out of Jail Free" card to be played. However, it does convey to the organization your deep understanding of the immutable challenges we as project managers and executive sponsors often face. 

TEP: Once you've laid that foundation, how should you proceed when things start to go wrong?

Vienneau: You're knee deep in and recognize the battle is about to be lost to those all too formidable foes: cost, quality, time, and/or scope. So now what? Much like the uncertainties that surround every project, and contribute to situations like these, the whats and hows of dealing with an unhealthy project can be very much situational depending on several factors. These include time of recognition, sunk cost, downstream dependencies, customer commitment, tolerance to pivot, team composition, leadership bias, etc. The fact is, there is no one size solution to solve all. There is no governing body or standards to prescribe how to deal with sick projects. Unlike other engineering disciplines, we cannot rely on absolute laws or centuries of experience. 

However, there are a few things that I've found that can help soften the impact. First, it absolutely helps to set the right tone and framing of your project management discipline to the stakeholders who ultimately gauge success. Getting this right upfront will set a more productive context for downstream conversations. Next, as we confront the realities, it's important we create a completely open and honest, transparent, and blameless environment. This results in a much more productive atmosphere to address the situation, uninhibited by speculation, fear, and distrust. It provides for a fact-based setting to tackle the aforementioned foes. 

Finally, this is all for nothing if something is not learned and preserved. Even if you only come away with the knowledge that project delivery is often shaped by circumstances outside of our control, you go into each subsequent initiative a little wiser and more prepared. And, if you realize the underpinnings of sound delivery are sculpted by intuition, good judgment, common sense, and political and social awareness – congratulations! You're farther along than most. 

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.