6 Steps to Save a Project That's Gone Off the Rails

No matter how much careful planning goes into a project, disaster can still strike when you least expect it. And when it does, it’s important for project managers to know how to minimize the damage and keep the team moving forward.

Sometimes, the signs are obvious: deadlines are being missed, your communication channels aren’t keeping everyone on the same page, and team members are confused about the scope of their individual responsibilities.

Other times, the signs a project is headed for trouble are more difficult to spot. Maybe team morale is a little lower than usual, or the project’s output doesn’t exactly meet your agency’s quality standards.

If your latest project seems like it’s spinning out of control, we’re here to help. We’ve outlined a basic project recovery plan to stop the bleeding and steer your team back on track. It won’t necessarily fix everything, but it’s a good place to start. 

How to Save a Project That’s Gone Off the Rails
1) Acknowledge that things aren’t going so great.

It might seem painfully simple, but admitting there’s a problem with the project’s current trajectory is the first (and often most difficult) step to getting things back on course.

Whether you’re dealing with a big problem or some smaller difficulties, the earlier you acknowledge them, the better. If you leave those seemingly less urgent issues to fester, they could cause major project disruptions down the line. Be vigilant for signs of potential catastrophe. 

Avoid playing the blame game. Gather your team for an emergency meeting to discuss exactly what’s going wrong and assess the damage. As the project manager, it might mean an ego hit to call out a project’s shortcomings, but it’s a necessary blow to get things back on the right path.

2) Reevaluate the project’s core objectives.

The best way to get things rolling again is to bring your team’s attention back to the project’s original purpose and primary goals. When things get chaotic, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, and people can get bogged down in the stressful details. The purpose can get lost in the frantic shuffle. 

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As the project manager, it’s your job to keep an eye on the ultimate goal — especially when the project isn’t headed in the right direction. At the kickoff meeting, you likely went over the project’s targets and milestones with your team — but it might be time for a refresher.

When you meet with your team, don’t just rehash everything from the initial kickoff meeting — make sure you take the time to identify where things have fallen off course. Are there any particular areas of your project plan that now seem unattainable? Any areas that require some careful reevaluation? Maybe something you thought would be a small component is actually demanding a lot more attention. 

At this point, you can’t be afraid to be flexible.

It can seem absolutely terrifying to pull a 180-degree pivot midway through an important project, but sometimes it’s the only way to salvage things. Think about it this way: You know more about the project now than you did at the outset. At this point, you know what doesn’t work, which makes you better equipped to formulate a better — more realistic and informed — approach.

3) Audit your team’s communication channels.

If your project isn’t going as planned, there’s a good chance that poor communication deserves a significant chunk of the blame. It’s pretty simple: For your project to succeed, you need to have a communication infrastructure that allows team members to stay on the same page, even when they’re working on different areas of the project.

Take the time to examine your current communication process and look for any gaps or weak spots. What channels is your team currently using to communicate? How are you sharing information about individual team members’ work? Is there a central place where team members can track the project’s overall progress? How often are you checking in as a group?

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One of the easiest ways to keep your team connected is investing in a project management tool. There are a ton of tools available at various price points, making it a great option for agencies of all sizes.

If onboarding your entire team onto a new piece of software midway through a project sounds like it might overcomplicate things, make the best of your existing tools and channels. Create a single place (such as a shared document) where team members can report on their progress and keep track of how the project is doing overall. Establish regular times to meet in person and discuss what’s working, and what isn’t.

4) Schedule one-on-one meetings with team members.

Group meetings are a great way to share information and confirm everyone is focused on working towards the same goals, but individual, one-on-one meetings are still necessary to ensure the project is headed in the right direction.

If you haven’t already been doing so since the outset of the project, set up weekly one-on-one meetings with each of your team members. Regular one-on-ones give your team the chance to discuss how they’re feeling, how their work is going, and what they need from you to be successful.

These meetings also give you the opportunity to get a feel for where the project currently stands and address any concerns directly and discreetly. If a project isn’t going well because a few people seem to be slacking in their contributions, this is your opening to dig into why, and help them start pulling their weight again. 

5) Address stakeholder concerns.

When a project starts going south, it’s your responsibility to keep your client (and any other relevant stakeholders) in the loop. Transparency and honesty are key here. If you attempt to hide the project’s issues, things will only get worse down the road.

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Acknowledge any mistakes that might have occurred, and own up to them — don’t try to pass the blame or throw around excuses, because they won’t be received well. Instead, explain the issues straightforwardly and share your action plan for getting everything back on track.

The most important thing to emphasize here is that you fully understand the situation and you’re in control of it. It’s much better to inform your client something will be a little late and explain why, rather than keep them in the dark and have them get frustrated when the deadline is missed.

6) Learn from it.

It’s important to fully recognize what exactly went wrong so you can do your best to prevent it from happening again in the future.

After the project is over, you should orchestrate a project post-mortem with your team. Send out a simple questionnaire before the meeting to give team members the opportunity to reflect and share insights they might not feel comfortable sharing in front of the whole group. This is a great chance for people to dig into both the project’s weak points and successes (however small).

The post-mortem meeting itself should ultimately be a frank but civil discussion of the project from start to finish. Try to acknowledge even seemingly small points of frustration, and plan on putting processes in place to avoid issues in the future.

Remember: This meeting isn’t the time to put anyone on the spot, point fingers, or assign blame. It’s ultimately a chance to unpack the project’s trajectory and make your team is stronger for next time.


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