Almost every project stumbles at some point, is challenged, and needs small course corrections in order to get back on course. Such adjustments are natural, and are hardly worthy of mention.
However, the threat of stagnation is real, because this endangers not just the project objectives, but also the resources invested in the project and the participants’ motivation.
There are many symptoms and warning signals that indicate the presence of such crises:
- Inadequate documentation: The reports produced internally do not or no longer conform to standards; they are incomplete or their content is muddled, are full of irrelevancies, and instead of results and impacts contain verbose commentary on the project as a whole.
- False hopes: Contrary to expectations, the project fails over a long period of time to reach successive stages and objectives, address target groups, build internally relevant skills, find additional project partners, etc.
- Mismanagement: Decisions are perpetually postponed, and changes rejected ("But it’s always worked this way"). Resources are continually reinvested even as objectives are regularly missed, and the culture of learning and failure tolerance exists only on paper.
- Bad image: Areas of responsibility are not clearly defined, and the staff changes constantly. Employees are unenthusiastic, sick days and absentee rates climb, and volunteers rarely show up.
Of course, this is hardly an exhaustive list. And often, there is no single factor responsible for the project’s trouble, but rather a whole chain of developments. But when one or more of the warning signals appears, you should act quickly and emphatically.
The earlier you deal as a team with the causes of the crisis, the better are the prospects of bringing the project back onto course. This demands absolute honesty, a sober sense of reality and an accurate understanding of the project’s status. Only once you understand the reasons for the crisis, have a clear picture of the current situation and can consider options will you also be able to find solutions.
Moreover, you should plan the subsequent intervention in a deliberate way:
- Gain clarity about the extent of the problem. In your view, what’s going wrong, and how can the project be brought back onto the road to success.
- As a team, discuss expectations and objectives for the project’s successful continuation – and only then talk about the difficulties.
- Identify problems, but steer clear of issues of blame. Your dialogue should be linked to a constructive learning culture; weak points to date should be clearly communicated, but the discussion should be fundamentally future oriented and carried out in a collegial way. Impact-oriented work also means that everyone deals with each other in a respectful and responsible manner.
- If the project isn’t running smoothly, it’s often due to unclear goals. It may help to initiate a renewed discussion about common project objectives. However, don’t get lost in the details; instead, focus on the essential elements, and look at the project by taking a step back. A third-party perspective may well be worth obtaining here.
- Projects often snag because the organization lacks skills in certain areas. If this is the case, you could draw on your network, consider further training or make contact with other organizations.
In order to put a faltering project back on the right path, it’s ultimately important that all participants remain confident and keep their cool.