Saving Your Career After a Failed IT Project

PMIArticle Link: 31 May 2010

"If you can turn it into something positive, a project gone wrong doesn't have to damage your career."

The odds aren't exactly in your favor. The Standish Group reports that more than two-thirds of all IT projects failed or didn't meet expectations in 2008. With statistics like that, you're probably going to face the ugly reality at least once.

Here are three tips for making sure your career doesn't suffer:

Learn to spot failure before it happens.

Although you may not realize it the first time you work on a failing project, the warning signs are always there. If stakeholders aren't attending meetings, developers are leaving the project or there are a lot of questions about daily expenses or resource allocations, for example, your project might be in trouble. If it happens, take some time to reflect on what those harbingers were and be on the lookout for them the next time.

Project managers should be able to step back from a project to see what's going wrong and how they can correct the situation, says Emad E. Aziz, PMP, CEO, BRISK Consulting SAE, a project management consulting firm in Cairo, Egypt.

"They should be able to dive into the lowest level of detail and yet maintain a holistic view almost at the same time," he says. "This allows them to learn from mistakes and measure the impact of decisions at one level or the other."

Project managers can then transfer these learned skills from project to project, Mr. Aziz says. "This [ability] inevitably allows them to turn the negatives to positives and hence learn and progress in their careers," he says.

Whether the project failure was completely your fault or not, you have to own up to it.

Instead of pointing fingers at others, admit your mistakes. Also clearly state what you'll do differently next time, which will help restore your reputation.

In job interviews, failures should be presented as a balance to successful projects, says Justin Honaman, director, customer intelligence, Coca-Cola Customer Business Solutions, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

"Most employers expect an individual to have experienced failures in life - and in projects. Honestly, expect the best leaders to learn from failures and have the strength and tenacity to acknowledge lessons learned and apply those in the future," says Mr. Honaman, who is also the author of Make It Happen! Live Out Your Personal Brand. "Potential employers will be more concerned if a prospective project manager has never had a failure."

Clearly, the best option is to avoid failure all together, and there are some ways to improve your odds.

Make sure you scope the project properly from its outset, Mr. Aziz says. Clearly define deliverables, project life cycle and other constraints such as time, quality, requirements and platforms. "It is very important that project managers focus on the expected benefits for which the project was incepted. They should be able to track whether the project will realize those benefits or not," he says.

Mr. Honaman also encourages project managers to be diligent with their communication. If failure seems likely, communicate with the project's stakeholders about potential problems long before they happen.  

"You need to do meeting notes after meetings, agendas for meetings, tackle issues and define owners of those issues, document the resolution and communicate the results," he says. "It sounds very simple, but it requires very good organization and attention to detail.

If, despite all of your heroics, the project still fails, use that knowledge to your advantage.

"Identify what was learned from the situation and what steps were taken, to ensure the same errors are not made during the next project," says Mr. Honaman.