After months of work, and despite the best efforts of many, everyone is labeling the project a failure. Once the apple of the sales team’s eye, the project is now an embarrassment. Then there are the possible impending financial, legal, and political ramifications, not to mention the impact on a project manager’s career.

The investigation
No commercial organization wishes for the public to know about its dirty laundry, especially if the public is funding the failed project. Yet, as in air crash investigations, it’s important to understand the causes of the failure and the extent of the damage. Oftentimes, an independent body comes in to assess these factors.

Large organizations might appoint a highly experienced project manager to undertake the task of forensic analysis of the project wreckage. In order for the resulting report to be accurate, meaningful, and unbiased, the project manager must have a measure of independence.

Companies can’t afford for project managers to defend themselves by revealing large-scale, high-level influences that cause problems beyond their control or predictive ability. Therefore, there may be huge pressure to shove the entire project under the carpet. Large-scale projects that fail carry more political implications, and hence, there may be a greater tendency to hide the results and to ignore the reasons behind them.

The single-point-responsibility approach to projects usually implies that the project manager is to blame for any shortfalls in the project’s results. In other words, project managers should foresee problems and avoid them–or engineer a graceful “landing.” Project managers commonly discover that most of the damage is to their reputation.

Benefits of the investigation
Wise corporations will be keen to learn in-house lessons about the cause of the failure and to determine whether it could have been avoided. Of course, the added cost and disruption of an investigation is only beneficial if the company bravely faces up to its errors and understands some complex answers. A detailed forensic analysis can actually pay for itself by making recommendations which, when subsequently implemented, avoid any recurrence of the underlying problems.

However hard it may be to deal with this investigative atmosphere, a major project collapse can educate and stiffen the resolve of the individual responsible for the errors. So much so that the individual never repeats the error, and the debacle becomes, if not a badge of honor, then at least evidence of the project manager’s toughness.

There are other useful bits of information to gain from a disastrous project. For instance, in certain contexts, failure to create the desired result is useful knowledge. If the success indicators are well defined in advance, you won’t be able to classify this type of project a failure. Although, all project managers know that a feature that starts as a “nice-to-have” can easily become “absolutely essential” in the eyes of the marketing department.

Learn from others’ mistakes
Once a high-inertia project gets even slightly out of shape, you may need both firefighting and damage limitation skills to provide a rough landing rather than an outright disaster. When you look around at your most experienced colleagues, you’ll find that almost all of them have had a pet project go belly up. Since these kind of unfortunate incidents often provide project managers with a valuable lesson, go ahead and take the time to ask them about their experiences.