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What to do When Your Project Starts to go Downhill

by Bill Dotson

on November 5, 2009

in Articles

We’ve all had projects go bad – the client is too demanding, the project is taking too long, the dreaded scope creep, or worse. No matter how well you prepare, it can always happen. What do you do when a project starts to fail? Here are a few things I recommend doing. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.

Stop and Take a Breath

Our brains and emotions are very powerful. If you think a project is starting to fail, take a breather and get your thoughts in order. You want to think logically and sometimes that’s hard to do when you are pouring your creative juices into a project.

Revisit the Contract

Inspect your own work – are you doing what you agreed to do when you agreed to do it? Is the client? I’ve been involved in projects where my client and I both forgot to go back to the contract and determine what we agreed to do during the project. Once you get started on a project this is easy to do. Review your contracts weekly to make sure everyone is holding up his/her end of the deal.

Review Your Discussion and Meeting Notes

After reviewing the contract, take a look at your notes to figure out if you or your client agreed to any changes or are waiting on any new information. If you agreed to do something extra or make changes and did not issue a Change Order, then it’s on you to follow through with your commitment.

Keep Your Notes in Electronic Format

It is much easier to search your notes when they are in electronic format. Also, reviewing your notes regularly allows you to come up with a Change Order or second project after the first one is complete. It’s almost impossible to have a project go from start to finish without some form of “It would be great if you could…

Set-up a Face to Face Meeting with Your Client

Face to face is the best since you can read body language. If this isn’t possible, a phone call (with web cam) is a must. Don’t e-mail about anything like this. It’s too sensitive.

When you are with your client, let him/her know how you feel about the project. At this point, it’s best to avoid statements such as “I’ve done everything agreed to” and “…according to the contract…” Pretend you are a child and explain it in very simple terms. Something like, “John (client), this project got off to a great start. I’m getting the sense that everything may not be OK. Do you have the same sense?”  Then pause for an answer. “What can we do to make sure this deal remains a good deal for both of us?

Hopefully, the meeting goes well and you are able to correct the direction of the project. If the client does not see things the way you do, you have a few options. You can say, “Let’s review the project notes and our agreement (much better than “the contract”) together.”  This meeting follows the same format as the first one, but now you are working with the agreement in front of you. You or your client may realize there is something wrong and can work together to correct it.

Withdrawal from the Project

You could also withdraw from the project. If you and the client cannot come to an agreement about the project and the risk is too high to continue, then you should withdraw. This is a very tough call to make. I’ve only done it twice and it’s not fun because it’ll throw your client’s schedule off and potentially have consequences for you.

Before withdrawing, revisit your contract and make sure you are delivering according to schedule, you know you’ve delivered any deliverable items and can prove it, and there’s no way of moving forward.

Then, get ready for a conversation that could be emotional for both parties. Keep focused on what you need while maintaining an open mind. You may find out that the client agrees with you or needs something different and didn’t know how to ask. You could even save the project at this meeting.

If it does end, write a handwritten Thank You card and mail it in the next day or so. It’ll make a difference.

In Conclusion

As much as I’d like to say, “It’s just business”, we all know it’s never just business. All clients have personal and professional risk when working with you. Always be open and honest about what you need and want and give your clients time to express their needs and wants, too.

The world we work in may seem large and daunting at times, but you know how small it can be. People will talk about how good/bad their experience with you was. A few negative projects or references are enough to end a company.

About Bill Dotson

Bill Dotson is owner of WebMedley, a web hosting and application development company with over 1,000 clients. For fun, Bill advises freelancers and small businesses on sales and growth strategies.