Failure is an option

My first project out of university was a disaster.

The client was unhappy, technically it was a mess, no one knew what it was supposed to do despite the volume of requirements and functional specification documents and the quality of what was there was terrible. People were working hard but it wasn’t really going anywhere.

All of this, I should note, was happening before I joined. I didn’t realise how bad it really was at the time. The Real World was so different and new from university that I was blinded the problems and just did what I thought was best.

Of course, despite the title of the piece, this isn’t a good option. But that’s not to say that no good came out of the whole process.

Six months, maybe a year, into my time on the project somebody realised that something needed to change. They replaced the project manager with one known inside the company as a “trouble shooter.” And it’s no exaggeration to say that within a few months the project as a whole had been turned around. Indeed, the relationship with the client changed so much we won new business. And a senior manager, after a few drinks, happily sang the praises of this new manager. With the old manager pretty much any discussion by the client would be unquotable on a family website.

The details of what happened are too numerous and it happened far too long ago for me to remember them all anyway. Instead, what I take away from this is (at least) two things.

Firstly, even when things are badly wrong it is possible to turn them around. It can take effort and time that you maybe unwilling or unable to invest, but deliberate change is always possible; just waiting for a miracle or someone to stop paying the invoices is not productive.

Secondly, it has made me try to keep my eyes open, to try to understand what’s going on on the whole project rather than just in my little corner. On that first project, there were talented people doing good work but it wasn’t coordinated and it wasn’t being prioritised correctly. On other projects you see a few bad eggs who (deliberately or not) manage to sour the whole team. And on others there is so much bureaucracy, so much overhead that good people can’t do good work because of all the meetings and paperwork.

Of course, as a small cog in a big machine it is often not possible to actually fix these problems, but an awareness of what’s going on can make it easier to anticipate problems and try to work around the worst aspects. You alone may not be able to make the project a success but you can at least complete your tasks as well as possible.