5 Useful Tips on How to Recover Failing Projects
“The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.”

When the poet, Robert Burns wrote the poem To a Mouse in 1785, he probably never thought it would one day apply to project management. In project management, we accept that the keys to project success are:
  • balancing the constraints of time, resources and quality;
  • and identifying (and resolving) red flags that could lead to project failure.

We do this by creating complex processes, project charters, project goals, plans, and more. But what we fail to realise is that all our planning can be upended at any time by unseen factors.

Even with better technology and processes at our fingertips, we find that more projects are failing, resulting in significant monetary losses. According to the latest report from the Project Management Institute, organisations lose around $110 million for every $1 billion invested in new projects. The report also states that only 64% of projects meet their goals and 16% of all projects started within organisations in the past 12 months were deemed failures!

Project Failure
Some of the causes of these failures included:
  • Ego and self-protection among team members
  • Poor definition of opportunities and risks
  • Skill mismatch
  • Inadequate / poor communication
  • Change in project objectives.

I’m sure you would think these things would be easy to spot and take care of, but in many failing projects, the project manager is the last one to acknowledge the failures. It's not that they don't see the project slipping off course, they just choose to turn a blind eye and hope it resolves itself.

Some of the common red flags that get ignored include:
  • A project running over the budget while being nowhere near completion
  • Low morale among project team members.
  • Scope creep
  • Rampant delays and missed commitments.

And when the reality finally hits, they tend to launch into panic mode. Wrong move. Panicking people can't reason effectively so they end up making rash fight-or-flight decisions. However, this type of response doesn't solve anything.

But it's not all gloom and doom – luckily, most failing projects can still be rescued if you know what to do. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are five tips on how to regain control and rescue your failing project.

1) Acknowledge the failure of the project

Many project managers tend to ignore the red flags as they hope they sort themselves out. This kind of thinking is misplaced in project management, as even well thought-out projects can have external factors derail them easily. While there is a place for optimism, good managers should also be honest with themselves (and others) about the state of a project. Their failure to do this will only doom the project and the project team, if it goes on for long enough.

2) Assess the project

Once you acknowledged the failure of the project, you should always assess the status of the project without bias. This can be determined by reviewing all the tasks and activities. By ignoring any previous estimates and concentrating on the project’s current status, you can determine exactly what progress (if any) has been made so far.

The reassessment should include every element of the project, including time, budget, available resources, key skills and people. By evaluating the project this way, you will be assessing from a known baseline and will be better positioned to regain control.

3) Reaffirm the project aim

The reassessment phase will allow the project team to see exactly where the project went off course. It's now the project manager's role to remind team members of the original vision. By re-detailing the project requirements and deliverables, you can reignite some of the initial enthusiasm the project had at its inception. This reaffirmation will also help to remind people of the benefits of the completed project, both to the firm and everyone involved.

Project Benefits

4) Re-evaluate the remaining resources and create a new plan

At this point, we can agree that the initial project plans didn't work. Therefore it's time to evaluate the resources you have left, and work out a new schedule. This re-evaluation will lead to a new plan and the development of a new (realistic) time frame to complete the revised project.

By determining what's left of the initial budget, a manager can make the decision whether to reduce scope or reset the schedule. Do you need a larger team? Can you realistically afford better equipment? Is every member of the team aware of what their exact roles and responsibilities are? Have you identified new milestones or re-planned existing ones?

Re-evaluation isn't simply adding on all the available resources; it must be done strategically to avoid repeating the previous failures.

5) Change leadership

At the basic level, the failure of most projects can be traced back to a project manager who simply wasn't up to the task. Good project managers have a firm handle on managing the constraints of time, scope, cost and quality. Generally speaking, failure to control at least two of these will definitely cause the project to fail.

An organisation's focus, however, must be on successfully delivering the project for a client. If doing that involves changing the project manager, it should be done swiftly and shouldn't be taken personally.


In conclusion, it's important for you to know that regardless of how much you plan or build in contingencies, an unexpected event can always happen. Most project failures can be linked to poor planning from the onset; but the first step to recovery is acknowledging this failure and refocusing the scope of the project.

Remember that you can always turn mistakes into learning opportunities; so follow this up by resetting expectations and re-dedicating the project team. With a motivated team, you'll find that you can rescue a failing project and deliver the promised results.