5 Lessons Learned from a Failed Project

by Jennifer Miller on May 29, 2010

in Learning, Personal Effectiveness

Last week, I wrote about a powerful leadership lesson learned when my key project crashed and burned.  People Equation reader Nancy asked about the lessons learned from that experience. Indeed, there were several. But first, the story of “The Institute”, the project that gave me both fits and gifts. . .

Years ago, I joined a Fortune 500, “100 Best Places to Work” company to work in their training and development department as a Program Manager. Three weeks after joining the company, I was assigned to manage a project called the Institute. The Institute was an annual, week-long conference that our company offered to the sales force of its distribution channel. Planning the Institute was an intensive, 10-month project. In addition to coordinating the week’s curriculum with 7 product managers, I also managed the conference planning (meals, facility tours, lodging, etc.)

When I joined the company, preparations for the Institute had already begun. That year, a decision had been made to go with a “Go Back to College” theme—complete with the experience of staying in the dorms. Yes, dorm rooms.  What I didn’t know at the time was that Institute participants were a tough crowd, with more than its fair share of prima donnas.

Think about it:

Prima donnas + dorm rooms = very unhappy campers.

Yep, that’s one “people equation” that doesn’t add up. I questioned the choice and was assured that it would be OK and besides, the contract with the college had already been signed. I was new to conference planning and foolishly, I didn’t trust my inner Voice of Reason, which was screaming, “What professional wants to stay in a college dorm? Super bad idea!” Setting my reservations aside, I went along with it.

Boy, do I wish I had listened to my Inner Voice.

Even though we had publicized that they would be staying in dorm rooms, it was still a shock to the arriving conference participants. Things went from bad to worse as word spread throughout the conference about the ill-equipped accomodations. The anger built upon itself until nothing at the conference was acceptable: the cafeteria lunches were deemed “inedible”, the conferences rooms were “freezing” (or, “boiling hot”) and then there was The Train. As in, “Did you hear about The Train that runs right outside our dorm window in the dead of night? I’m nearly deaf from it!”

The rest of the conference went smoothly, but the unacceptable lodging cast a pall over the conferees’ overall experience.  I spent much of the week doing damage control and trying to appease angry, disappointed customers. At the end of working an 80-hour week, I drove home, exhausted and demoralized.

 So, what did the week from hell teach me?

  1. Trust your gut. There wasn’t anything to be done about the accommodations—the contract had been signed and there were limited facility choices for a group as large as ours. In hindsight, what I could have done was a better job of communicating the limited amenities and outlining the conference participants’ options. Instead, I foolishly, adopted a hopeful stance—“maybe it won’t be that bad.” Well, it was bad for many of the conference participants.  If I had listened to my gut, I would have been more proactive in helping manage a non-negotiable feature of the conference that had huge implications for its overall success.
  2. Hard work doesn’t guarantee a successful project.  I wasn’t the only one who worked hard bring the Institute to life. It was a true group effort involving at least 30 other co-workers, vendors and external instructors.  I personally put in many 50 – 60 hour work weeks to get the conference up to speed.  Still, even with all the preparation and hard work, it wasn’t the success it could be due to the next learning point:
  3. Get clear on who your customers are— all of them. Nearly every project has multiple “customers”; this was a point I didn’t consider fully.  I had been assured that lodging the participants in the dorms would be supported because the owners of the dealerships were supportive.  These were the business owners paying to send the sales people to the Institute.  True, the dealership owners were happy because it cost less, but they weren’t the ones staying in the dorm rooms.  I clearly didn’t understand the expectations of my other customers— the conference participants. They were used to being “wined and dined” and treated like V.I.P’s. Staying in a dorm room was not going cut it.
  4. It’s OK to fail. Big-time failure leads to better things. This was the first time in my professional career that I had failed so publicly. In the moment, it didn’t feel like there was anything positive about the Institute experience.  In the years since the Institiute, I’ve learned that mistakes and set-backs can be instructive, if you let them. It’s easy to play the victim, dwelling on the bad rap you’ve been given. Truth be told, I spent the first couple of weeks having a pity party over the failure. Then, I slowly began to assess the project: what could I have done better? By objectively analyzing the project, I was able to improve it for the next time  I managed an Institute.
  5. Perspective comes, but only after the pain has subsided. As we were cleaning up after the Institute had ended, I turned to our stalwart administrative assistant Lillian and groaned, “I’ve never been so glad to have a project be over with!”  Lillian matter-of-factly, replied, “Well, sometimes projects just don’t always go the way you want them to.” I was taken aback.  Lil and I were good friends and she is a very kind person.  Couldn’t she feel my pain?  Didn’t she stand right next to me while people ranted and raved about the nasty room accommodations?  Well, yeah she did.  And, she had 25 + years’ life experience on me.  Lillian knew that there could be much, much worse things that could happen in my life, so in her book, a failed work project wasn’t really all that much to get worked up about.  At the age of 29, the botched Institute was a monumental deal to me.  Today, not so much. But that perspective can only be gained with the passage of time.

These five learning take-aways have served me well over the years both personally and professionally.  I would never advocate that someone botch a project just for the benefit of learning something. However, when something does go south, I wish for you the strength of self-examination and the support of wise people so that you may grow from the experience.

Readers, do you have an “Institute” of your own to share?  What’s your list of “lessons learned” look like?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica Miller-Merrell May 29, 2010 at 6:06 am

Love this. I read your last post and was hoping you would shed some more light on the mistake and how you learned from it.

Nice written, Jennifer.


Steve Boese May 29, 2010 at 6:23 am

Great lessons for sure, I appreciate you sharing the story of this project. I do like that you recognized that sometimes no amount of effort can completely overcome a really bad premise. Super post.

Paul (MiNutrition) McConaughy May 29, 2010 at 6:24 am

Lot’s of failed projects have given me lots of time to learn…but here’s the number one thing. Be sure everyone and anyone knows what you’re doing from day one. If they do, they can stop you, make suggestions, clarify intentions, identify pitfalls, provide motivation and inspiration, have your back, hold you up, ease you down… For some reason we all seem to work on projects until they are almost done and then show them around. At that point we are so committed to ownership that we are heartbroken when we discover we missed the mark. A slight course correction early on could often save use great effort and misery later. So, ask for feedback at every point along the way from everyone you can get involved.

Master Resume Writer May 29, 2010 at 6:41 am

So many great points you’ve made here!

Thank you for sharing your ‘botched project’ story. We’ve ALL had them at one point or another in our careers, and if not, then I’d dare say we haven’t braved ‘risk’ enough. Risk (mostly calculated, but sometimes simply jump-off-the-edge-of-the-cliff risk) is necessary to grow as an employer, manager, leader, entrepreneur, etc.

In this case, you inherited decisions made by others (a choice had been made and contract signed), and you processed options and did the ‘best you could’ to wrangle a tough situation.

It seems the key here, and one you turned so successfully to unlock future opportunities, is learning from the outcome: the strength of self examination and support of wise people! Well put!

I also agree re: ‘trusting one’s gut’ and ‘gaining perspective after the pain has subsided!’

Thank you for your thoughtful, content-rich posts!


Jennifer May 29, 2010 at 9:09 am

@Jessica, @Steve, @Jacqui– thanks for weighing in with your perspective; all very valuable!

@Paul, you are so correct that if we create something in a vacuum, we (and our customers) are rarely satisfied with the end result. Your comment reminds me of something that Seth Godin calls “thrashing”– the process of examining, refining and ultimately choosing an idea by bringing in varied opinions early in the process. Godin explores this concept on p. 104 of his book “Linchpin”.

Jane July 25, 2010 at 11:55 am


Great article, consistent with your insightful previous writings. As difficult projects are to manage, one thing is true when it’s all over. Applying the matix of activities to the yardstick of success reveals the best the worst and significance of all the tasks wrapped up into the project. That’s why we analyze what went well and what caused grief so we repeat the best and act to prevent the worst.

The only thing we can do with the past is learn from it. Someone wiser than me once said, “Learn from the mistakes of others, because you’ll never live long enough to make them all yourself.” Learning from my own mistakes seems to have a sustaining quality; pain has a memory. But reading, listening, to the experiences of others is that ounce of prevention we’ve all heard about.

In reading your post, I wonder how the outcome could have been different if attitudes of the attendees had been more aligned with their purpose and objectives than comfort and convenience. As a new employee, your managers were just acclimating to your skills and style. Even your drive to communicate more information could have been met with opposition.

You have done well. Keep up the stellar work!

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