Failed project postmortem
You learn more from a failed project even though it can be a painful exercise.

Are we in it to succeed? Best practices, reusing successful and tried and true templates, putting our best foot forward and giving 110% every day for, say, a year on a long term implementation. What happens if we have a failed project? What happens if, after all that effort, what we did – the work we performed and led our project team on – was deemed a failure? It is not really what you plan for when you decide to take on a leadership role like a project management position on a big project. How do you handle it? How do you show your face in public – or at least around the office and to the customer at any deployment or post-deployment meetings or possibly painful lessons learned session?

Well, it sort of all comes down to the character. Of course, how easy the failure is to handle can depend a lot on what the circumstances and magnitude are of the project failure. Was it all your fault? Was it a small failure…like over budget by 30%? Alternatively, was it a big failure…as in the customer pulled the plug on the project 75% of the way through? That is huge.

Anytime there’s a project failure; the important thing is to learn from it, recover from it, and move on. So don’t deny it or hide it…that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. So if you did not lose your job from this and if you are not blackballed from the PM community, I suggest you consider the following….

essentials of project management communications success
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Meet with the team

First, meet with the project team to discuss what went wrong and make plans for how each of you would be aware of the situation earlier next time. Each of you will go off to many other projects and perhaps rarely if ever land on the same team again. Your opportunity to take learning experiences with you to future projects becomes exponentially multiplied by doing this and by proceeding with lessons learned…even if the failure was an embarrassing catastrophe. I had one of those with a huge government agency that centered on a budget issue…ultimately none of it was my fault, but it was my project. The end discussion was just me, and the customer….the team was completely out of the picture. It would have been better for all if we had followed these steps.

Meet with the customer

Next, meet with the project customer. Own the failure and discuss what happened. Apologize where needed, be strong enough to point out weaknesses in the customer infrastructure that may have contributed to the failure. The key is to have the discussion and to offer and plan for the next step…a lessons learned session in person or by phone.

Conduct a lessons learned session

This one is tough on embarrassing failures, and I never did conduct one on the government project mentioned above. I just worked directly with the project sponsor as both of us tried to figure out if there was any possible way to move forward…ultimately and unfortunately there was not. However, do plan for and proceed with a lessons learned session if you can get as much of both teams back together for such a meeting. Even by phone is ok…just do it. What you discuss, learn, and document will be extremely valuable going forward on every project you touch because no one likes to experience failure. Document the lessons in TeamHeadquarters.

Prepare a statement to senior leadership

This one is important as it’s your professional way of saying, “I (or we) screwed up (even if it wasn’t all your fault), I understand what went wrong, and I’ve learned from it, I’m going to show that I’ve learned from it, and here’s how I’m going to show that.” Moreover, include your action plan to incorporate corrective steps and early action plans that should help to avoid a similar situation on a future project. Think of how some colleges have taken their swift measures in the face of possible sanctions to avoid further disciplinary actions. That is what you are doing here. Showing awareness, doing damage control, basically almost punishing yourself to show you understand things did not go well, and you very much care that it does not happen again. You are likely going to get a “sounds good” and “carry on” response, and you will be able to hold your head high for it because you controlled the situation.


The answer is “Yes”. It is ok to fail. But make it on your terms. Show you know things went poorly and that you are taking action to make sure it does not happen that way again on future projects. You will be changing this or that to make sure you catch whatever happened earlier next time – in time to take corrective action. Or if it was due to your action, this is what you are changing to fix that issue. But own it and control it – you will be back in charge and feel much better about the situation.

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