The Real Reason Your Last Project Failed

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"If we weren't making a film right now, would I quit? Yeah."

—Tim Jenison in Tim's Vermeer

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That’s the reply that Tim Jenison halfheartedly musters — looking exhausted as all hell, depressed, and pale — when the filmmakers of the documentary Tim’s Vermeer ask him if he wants to quit the project that has consumed the last few years of his life.

At that point, he’d spent months attempting to create a stroke-for-stroke replica of a Johannes Vermeer painting, with the hopes of proving his hypothesis about how Vermeer managed to ‘paint with light’ — a mystery that has beguiled art historians for hundreds of years.

Well, it turns out that despite the almost unfathomably ambitious and meaningful nature of his work, he claims he’s only finishing the painting because they’re making a film about it. Using that as a catalyst, he plows through his doubts, boredom, and fidgetiness to finish the project.

Hearing that, I couldn’t help but wish I had a film crew and a multi-million dollar budget to not-so-gently push me and my co-workers forward on our projects — to ask us about our feelings.

But that’s really hard, and it turns out that filmmakers just aren’t that interested in a difficult marketing site redesign, or my Josh Donaldson fan fiction.

Into the abyss

It did get me thinking, though, about my own experience with projects that have gone into the abyss. What makes this happen time and time again, and how can I reverse the trend? What am I missing?

First off, let’s talk about how your team might get to the point where they’re staring into that abyss and ready to give up.

IAG, a business analysis firm, produced a study about what contributes to the success of a project — and found that 68% of the surveyed companies are unlikely to have successful projects. At all.

The tactics suggested to reverse this trend — things like setting budgets realistically, setting hittable timelines, and establishing proper requirements — are all things you’ve heard before and know that you need to be doing. These are the “Yeah, yeah, I know” solutions, and I doubt you’re surprised to read them.

And yet, our projects continue going over budget, and our schedules keep flying out the window. In fact, this Harvard Business Review study analyzed 1,471 projects and found that those projects went over budget by an average of 27%.

But wait: if we’re so knowledgable about what the answers are, if we’re so aware of what we need to do differently, then why are our projects always off track — even at ‘smart’ companies?

Beyond logistics

Maybe it's time to consider that logistics aren’t our biggest problem.

Maybe it’s time to start looking at stuff like this Gallup post, which suggests that when people’s emotional needs are ignored, projects start to go down the tubes.

If people aren’t feeling properly trusted, motivated, creatively fulfilled, part of a strong team, or one of the infinite whack of other things that we can classify as emotional needs, then they’ll disengage, and the project implodes. Some samples have even shown that as little as 15% of people are engaged in their work.

That strikes a chord. And it lines up more with what I’ve always believed, and what I learned while running MetaLab: you can obsess over budgets all you want, but if you’re not engaging yourself or your team properly, most projects are doomed to mediocrity or failure before they even start.

It’s not enough to be busy and organized; your team needs to be happy, too.

Don’t get me wrong: budgets matter, and timelines matter — they’re what keep the lights on. But they’re not the only things that matter.

After all, even though the bottom-line is your top priority, it’s not going to be for everyone on your team. You, your project manager, and your CFO care deeply about hitting targets; meanwhile, your broader team wants to focus on doing great work, and less on bureaucracy. Put it this way: have you ever heard your best designer say that their wonderful work was a failure because the project went over budget? Because they missed one deadline?

You won’t hear that, because teams fully engaged by their work aren’t primarily concerned with budgets and timelines. That’s your concern, and you should work on it, but don’t expect it to solve the problem of your deflated team. A team that doesn’t care will always catch up to you, no matter how good you get at forecasting money and dates.

Budgets and timelines become easy complaints when we’re disengaged and bored. When we’re feeling captivated by our work, it’s not that budgets, timelines, and requirements suddenly don't matter; they just become something to work with, rather than work against. Every element of a project feels harmonious.

When we’re not engaged in our work, though — when nobody else seems to give a damn about how things are going for you — this is when we give up and our projects fail, no matter how well laid out the plan might be. And at this point, it’s too easy to blame the failure on a paltry budget instead of our own lacking management skills (a crazy-sounding stat: 65% of managers have ‘checked out’). It's infinitely easier to blame ‘the system’ rather than address our own monumental communication problems.

What can we do?

There’s no magic bullet — everyone needs different things to feel engaged by their work. It could be as simple as running status checks individually, instead of just popping in to make sure things are on schedule. But this much is for sure: it means getting personal.

It takes work to get to know the unique needs of each person on your team. You’ll find endless literature online regarding how to work with ‘creatives’, but there’s no handbook for this. You need to practice real empathy. You need to be available. You need to be a leader of people, not just projects. This can be challenging and will take time, but here's my advice:

Pay close, unflinching attention to your projects at the people level.

Now, back to Tim’s Vermeer: I’m willing to admit that maybe Tim Jenison finished his project because of the gravity of a multi-million dollar budget — but I think it’s just as likely that he was pushed to the finish line by someone asking him about his emotional state. The release of being honest and up-front about his doubts — being engaged — might have put the whole thing into a previously-unseen perspective.

We can do the same thing in our workplace by establishing a culture where we talk to our team as though we’re making a Tim’s Vermeer-esque documentary about each project:

“How are you feeling about this?”

“Do you like the way this is going?”

“How’s everyone enjoying this work?”

These are questions that, for some strange reason, we feel afraid to ask.

I'd like your advice in the comments section. How do you use empathy to promote a better workplace culture? How do you draw the best out of your colleagues? 

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-Photo: Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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