How to Handle a High Failure Rate

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No program manager wants to hear that his or her program failure rate is too high, but when it comes to company time and money, there often must be a reckoning: Programs fall apart, and conditions change — so do expectations and desired results. When senior management asks for an explanation of your misdeeds, however, it’s time to prove why you were given the lead on the program in the first place. The key to coming out alive (also known as mitigating damages so that you don’t look completely incompetent) is to have a wealth of well-organized information at your fingertips.

Assess the Damage
Just how bad is it? How much money, time and resources did you lose? Who helped? What should have happened that didn’t? Your first instinct might be to hide the less desirable information but don’t shy away from numbers — there’s no need to advertise them, but the last thing you need at this point is to be asked for some information and not have the answer. A lack of organization and know-how wasn’t the reason the latest program failed, was it?

Gather and report program metrics. What good can you report? Where did success occur, or where were improvements noted? Do you have any positive responses from program attendees? Anything counts at this point. Don’t think any savings is too small to advertise. It’s like adding cream to black coffee — when you’re attempting damage control, if you’re subtle and crafty, it takes a while before enough’s too much.

The word “spin” has gotten a bad rap — it doesn’t mean necessarily mean you’re going to lie. At least, it doesn’t mean that all the time. Sometimes “spin” simply means minimizing the bad and maximizing the good: Watch how you report in, don’t speak negatively, act slightly abashed — the program results weren’t as high as expected, but fortunately, we have this …. Don’t act defeated: “Man, I just don’t understand what happened. I’m so sorry.”

It’s like when you’re a kid, and your mother asks you what you’re eating. You just scarfed two cookies, knowing dinner is in 30 minutes, and you’ve already had your snack for the day. But she didn’t catch you with your hand in the jar so it’s like it didn’t happen, right? As a child you say nothing. You attempt to look blank and innocent, even though your cheeks are bulging. As a professional adult, you admit no personal guilt. You also don’t publicly point the finger. Instead, when pressed you simply acknowledge that something isn’t entirely way right and launch into something positive.

Implement a Tactical Plan for Recovery
If there’s nothing to be done except start over, at least have a plan to monitor in mind and report on the progress of future programs to avoid complete or partial failure. What specifications, requirements, analysis, test plans or controls can managers track during a program’s life cycle? In the requirements phase, for instance, the program manager might be asked to create a charter to document exactly what the business group wants the application to do. Setting plans in place also can highlight existing systems that require more memory, new interfaces, etc. as a result of a proposed software implementation or infrastructure upgrade. These seemingly ancillary things might have been overlooked and unwittingly contributed to your program’s failure, so having your finger on future solutions for them is a good thing and should be used to your advantage.

Call on Senior Managers for Support
One of the first unspoken rules of effective program management is to ensure you have senior management support. You should have been cultivating upper level buy-in from the beginning, informing sponsors of any successes along the way and asking for advice when things began to derail. If you’ve done all that, now’s the time to cash in your last chip. Ask for help salvaging the program in trouble. If you’re lucky, one of those uppity-ups will draw some of the sting away from you.

Look at the Big Picture
The world didn’t end. No one died, and millions of the company’s bucks didn’t vanish in a puff of smoke — we hope. You just screwed up. If you’re smart, you won’t take the fall alone. You don’t work in a vacuum, and this program failure doesn’t exist in one. Not that you shouldn’t take full responsibility for your part in the dismal returns, but don’t internalize them. Rather, redefine success, and with any luck, you’ve learned from the experience and have taken valuable lessons from this program failure to ensure that the next one is successful.

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