How to survive a doomed project

Sulking about the inevitable won't get you anywhere, but some skillful spinning just might

You've inherited the project from hell. Now management wants to know why it went bad and what you're doing to make it good. What do you do? Here's a quick survival guide. 

Use a positive spin. Even if you can't make lemonade from lemons, you can make it taste less sour by looking at the positives, says Susan Snedaker, author of How to Cheat at IT Project Management. "You can turn bad news around by saying things like, 'We delivered 80 percent of functionality, up from 74 percent at project midpoint.' The executives may come back and say, 'What happened to 100 percent?' But you'll have to defend it one way or the other."

It's not the crime, it's the cover up. "Most projects get in trouble because the truth is withheld until people start missing deadlines," says Ken Rau, senior consultant at Cutter Consortium. "It's better to hang out your dirty underwear early and make sure people understand how bad the situation really is."

Look for the hidden gain. Your project's bad luck may actually turn out to be good luck for the company. Business circumstances may have changed, making the project obsolete, or new technologies may have appeared that solve the problem less expensively and easily. "Delays and obstacles may clue you into a new approach or idea that you can sell," Snedaker advises.

Make a big mess. If the project is going to slip, make it a big slip, Rau says. "If you're think you're going to be a month or two late, say you'll be six months late, and then deliver early," he says. "It's the little slips that really destroy your image."

Get back to fundamentals. When a project starts to go south, it's a good idea to ask, 'What was the original business problem you were trying to solve?' " Snedaker notes. Is the project a victim of scope creep? Was it overspec'd in the first place? Paring down the project can often get it back on track.

"When all else fails," Snedaker adds, "you can always create a flashy PowerPoint presentation and show the charts upside down."

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