Leadership

A Disastrous Project and Screaming Client Are Inevitable

Great leaders learn from everything, and a project gone wrong is no exception. Here's a process for doing just that.
A Disastrous Project and Screaming Client Are Inevitable
Image credit: fizkes | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Founder and president of E2M Solutions Inc.
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As a business offering a service, sooner or later, you will run into a project from hell. In these situations, nothing seems to go right; communication is poor, directions are murky, quality is lacking, timelines are missed and tempers are through the roof.

Before you know it, you have a crisis on your hands. Times like these are when you must prove what your company is all about. One of my favorite insights is "leadership is defined in crisis."

When you have a project in which everything seems to be going wrong, it is up to you to take a step back and use the experience to improve your organization. Here are five crucial tips to help you through the difficult times.

1. Don't fall into a spiral of self-doubt.

In the unfortunate situation that you and your team are getting chewed out by a client or partner, it can be hard to not take it personally, especially if it’s the first time. After all, your business is your baby. It is made up of your hard work and core values.

When this is the case, it can be very easy to fall down the snake hole of self-doubt. You’ll start to question yourself, your leadership abilities, your own competence, etc. This is a terrible place to be; one that certainly doesn’t lead anywhere good. As leader, you are responsible for keeping everyone involved motivated and focused. If you lose your composure or start giving off bleak vibes, this behavior will trickle down the organizational ladder.

Always remember, project failures can happen for a multitude of reasons; almost none of which are personally against you or your team. Doomed projects need to be viewed as a stern indicator that you need to take a step back to critically evaluate your performance and plan your next move. Take a breath or maybe a nice walk to get your head straight, then dive into an analysis of what went wrong.

2. Evaluate each message from the client.

In the face of a project-gone-wrong, the words of the client should ideally form the basis for how you decide to move forward. However, the insights you get from their communications will likely not be black and white.

You need to sit down and objectively determine if, where and when you were in the wrong. Keep in mind, some clients can be very hard to work with. For example, they may give you a certain direction for a project at the beginning, then give you further directions down the line that completely contradict the initial plan.

Related: Deriving Pleasure From Dealing With Difficult Clients

In this case, the root cause of the issue might be an unclear project brief, proposal, outline or miscommunication. Therefore, the underlying takeaway for you from their messages could be that you need to refine your planning stage and make each outline, brief or proposal clearer, with no gray areas. Moreover, you need to have a procedure in place with a bulletproof project plan you can circle back to, should they contradict the original plan.

Ultimately, after a failed project, communication from the client or partner should lead you to the answers of what went wrong, the reason(s) things took a bad turn, when it happened and where the snags were.

3. Critically examine the strong and weak links in the process.

Once you have thoroughly assessed the project and the details behind everything that happened, it’s time to take a deeper look into your own operation. Once you have all the facts in chronological order, get everyone involved in a project post-mortem meeting to present the issues.

From here, get everyone’s opinion of what went exceptionally well throughout the project, and the areas that struggled. Let’s say you were designing a completely new website for a client. Maybe they liked the copywriting work of the pages, but didn’t like the design aspects, or vice versa. Perhaps you did a great job of meeting deadlines, but the client was unhappy with the output. Or, the output was good, but the client was furious over delayed timelines.

Related: 7 Science-Backed Strategies for Dealing With Angry Customers

The toughest part of the recovery process after a doomed project is taking the objective results and determining exactly how the shortcomings of your internal process fed into the failures. This will likely require a great deal of critical thinking and problem solving from you and your team. However, it’s the most crucial aspect of improving your business model; both internally and externally. From a long-term perspective, sometimes a failed project might be one of the best things that ever happened to your business.

4. Get everyone's insight on a plan for improvement.

At this point, hopefully you have pinpointed the root cause(s) of the project failure and what parts of your own operation need work. More importantly, everyone involved accepts the critical observations. This is where your leadership is tested. Now, you and your team must come up with how your company will use this experience as a lesson.

Keep in mind, you do not want to micromanage here. The internal processes need to be refined by the people who will carry them out, every single day. During the post-mortem meeting, get everyone’s opinion on how the planning stage or the day-to-day can be improved. Don’t hold back, heavy brainstorming is good here.

5. Understand that the refinement process never ends.

When it comes to examining your business operations, you and everyone else involved need to adopt the mindset that nothing is (nor ever will be) perfect. Doomed projects and negative client/partner interactions are simply a hard reminder of this fact. You need to accept failure and move on accordingly. The best approach to business operations is to look at a process asking: “How can I make this better?”

Developing a business that hits the mark each and every time is not possible. However, you should always be trying to get as close to this perfection as you can. A good practice to adopt within your organization is to take the last 10 or 15 minutes at the end of each week and reflect on how you made the organization better as a whole.

  • Were there any major roadblocks in your workflow this past week?
  • Did you find a way to make your own task execution more efficient? 
  • Did you do anything that made life easier for others?

These are the types of questions a leader keeps in mind throughout the week, trying to find concrete answers for. Ultimately, this is how you improve a company.

Related: 3 Leadership Strategies That Will Help Your Business Grow

Disastrous projects are a part of doing business. No matter how good your team is or how much you have improved your processes over the years, a doomed project can surprise you like a loud clap of thunder in the middle of the night.

However, these are the failures that put leadership to the test and propel substantive improvement. After all, when you wrap up a project like this, your goal is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. A failed project does not define a company; the recovery and refinement processes do. 

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