We have many words to describe a project in trouble—from “things have gone sideways” or “off-the-rails” to more graphic descriptions like “crash and burn.” The military has been a source of some lovely descriptions like FUBAR and SNAFU. The reason we have so many terms for projects not meeting the stakeholders’ expectations is because it happens so often. So, what do you do when your project goes off-the-rails?
The Kobayashi Maru is a no-win scenario at Starfleet academy to see how cadets deal with failure (see The Wrath of Kahn). As a project manager trying to develop cutting-edge products, I’ve seen my share of setbacks (and outright failures) and have learned much more from things going wrong then when things go smoothly.
If you take on challenging projects, you will eventually fail; probably several times. The key is not to never fail (though wouldn’t that be nice), but to always learn from your missteps and outright failures.
Kirk said he reprogrammed the computer that allowed him to successfully rescue the Kobayashi Maru because he doesn’t believe in a “no-win situation.”
I also believe that there is no such thing as a no-win situation: as long as you keep learning (and no one dies) then that has value. For instance, if a project fails, but the stakeholder learned that what they wanted to do is not possible given the current technology, then that’s a win. They can monitor the situation and restart the effort when technology can enable their vision.
During an interview I was once asked what I’d do if the development team estimated a project would cost $1.5 million and then the sales team sold the project fixed-bid for $1 million.
I responded, “Oh, you’re asking me the Kobayashi Maru question.”
Luckily, I was being interviewed by a fellow Star Trek fan. She smiled and said yes. My response was to let the leadership know my goal would be to only lose $500,000.
Don’t let someone else’s failure (the sales team in this case) cause your failure. If I had tried to manage the team to the budget they didn’t set, it would have created an incredible amount of stress and a low chance of success.
Kirk succeeded in the Kobayashi Maru challenge by changing the rules. In project management, that might look like working with stakeholders to change requirements, delivery dates, cost, or other constraints.
What you don’t do is release something that’s unsafe or violates the law. My rule is not to do anything you couldn’t justify to a reporter, a judge, or my mother. If you follow that guidance, you’re unlikely to change a rule in a way that you regret down the road.
If you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, there’s a good chance that, at least once in the project, it will feel like your project is out-of-control. A risk became an issue; a critical team member gave notice; a requirement was added that will require a complete restart.
Investigate the challenge and focus on what success looks like now and make a new plan toward the new success. Always focus on the way things are, not the way they were or the way you want them to be, and the path forward will be clear.
When you screw up, own it. I’ve seen lots of examples of a minor mistake leading to larger problems because someone tried to hide or deflect an issue. And if you’re going to learn from your mistakes, you first have to acknowledge that they happened.
When your project is going poorly, the stress on the entire team can go through the roof. The pressures to meet commitments you wish you hadn’t made are real and they aren’t going to go away.
But just because your project is FUBAR is no reason to be a jerk. Focus not on why the mistake happened, but how to make the situation better. Always be solution-focused.
You learn more from failure than success. The lesson may be expensive, so you might as well pay attention.
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