No one likes to admit defeat. Whether personal or professional, the consequences and emotions that come with it can range from irritating to all-consuming. The moment you realize a work project has been a waste of time is a defining one; the subsequent steps should be calculated, ultimately concluding in a decision to salvage it or move on. Here's a helpful three-step series, including questions to ask yourself and your team, to determine the best course of action.
Step one: take stock of the situation
Albert Einstein had a great saying: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." So, before you do anything else, make sure you can identify and explain the problem in the simplest of terms. Homing in on the main factors that are causing the problem and preventing the mission from being accomplished better equips you to move forward intelligently.
The first step in figuring out why a project is failing is to reconfirm what the goal was. From there, work backwards. Back-step: what components were absolutely critical to reaching that goal? Back-step: which of those critical components were brought to fruition and which were not? Back-step: is it still possible to succeed with any of those unsuccessful pieces within the allotted time frame and budget?
In addition to conducting your own assessment of the problem areas and opportunities for redemption, make a point to recognize what you don't know. That leads to the next step.
Step two: call a meeting of the minds
Even if you are the final decision-maker, this is no time to operate in a silo. It's too easy to fall victim to the pitfalls of an echo chamber. After clearly communicating to all impacted parties exactly why the project is on hold, you'll want to convene all the key players to assess the situation together, though I will say I have found that facilitating one-on-one meetings ahead of time yields more transparency and deeper insights.
Make sure all project material is available and easily accessible to everyone. Refer to it as needed to ensure all discussion points are rooted in facts. The goal of this meeting is to reach a consensus on whether the project still worthwhile and feasible under the current parameters. If so, what additional costs, if any, are required to rescue the project? If not, is there a new plan that can be accomplished by leveraging the work that's been completed to date? And finally, how would either decision impact your corporate strategic goals, other initiatives, company stakeholders, future business opportunities, and public perception?
It really is best to hold this type of meeting in person, but the health and wellbeing of your staff is priority number one, so you may elect to use your preferred video collaboration platform. While many people may have a hand in the project, aim to limit attendance as much as possible. Include project managers, senior leaders, and other key stakeholders. As both a seasoned CEO and cooking enthusiast, I can say with great certainty that in neither environment is too many cooks in the kitchen ever productive.
Step three: commit to a new game plan
At this point, the path of least resistance--more specifically, that which requires less time, money, and risk--is usually the one to take. Revise or create a new scope of work quickly, share it will all involved parties, and require everyone to confirm their understanding of and commitment to the plan.
After that, it's all about communication and follow-up. One more meeting is advisable with that same core team to kick off the restructured project plan. At this time, you should review the objective, discuss how the project supports your organization's strategic goals, and underscore expected results. Once everything is locked in, share the details with everyone who will be involved. Invite feedback, but short of any major discoveries or changes, stick to the plan.
Sometimes, what looks like a dead end is really a fork in the road. Other times, cutting your losses is the soundest most productive decision. Start by figuring out the root of the problem, then determine if the project, or parts of it, can be salvaged, and move forward with the goal of achieving the best-case scenario.