5 Signs Your Project is Failing (and How to Rescue the Situation)

by Lis 5 Minutes

Blog-bid-failureFor a freelancer, it’s critically important to be ahead of the curve in all sorts of ways – not least in being able to figure out when a project is failing.

Not only is this important for your own self-preservation, but also for your reputation. If you see the writing on the wall early enough, it might even be possible to rescue the situation. However, seeing the signs in time isn’t always easy!

Below, we’ll take a look at some of the key clues that your project might be failing, how to resolve them, and finally, we’ll look at using ‘agile’ project management principles to boost the chances of success. Let’s have a look!

1. Poor Communication

Many of the signs that a project is failing are frustratingly vague, which sums up this key issue. If your client, or your contact within a client organization, is difficult to get hold of or can’t explain what they are looking for during the project proposal, it’s an early sign of trouble.

Resolving communication issues depends on your situation. If you’re local to your client, ask for a face-to-face meeting to pin down details and get feedback on progress. If the project has a long timescale, try to arrange regular discussions.

If you are working remotely, email, phone, and Skype will be your main options. Skype in particular is very helpful – not only because it’s free, but also because it gives you vital visual clues to your client’s body language.

Whichever way you approach this, note down any feedback you get and email your client a copy for their agreement. Being on the same page is vital.

2. Lack of Support

If your project requires the client to provide support (such as software, supplies, or just key information) and it’s not forthcoming, that’s also a worrying sign.

Failures in support can easily become bottlenecks that can bring the entire project to a grinding halt, so resolving them is critical. Try to look ahead at the start of a project to points where you will require support and arrange it at that stage, rather than when it’s overdue.

The support package should be part of your initial project plan, agreed with the client down to details such as who is responsible for providing the support and at what point(s) they will provide it. It’s also good to agree an alternative contact from the outset, in case of any issues.

3. Lack of Interest

Does the project manager seem uninterested in your reports on project progress? Is the client less and less animated when you deal with them? Neither is a good sign.

Lack of interest can equate to lack of buy-in, which can mean that the client has doubts about the project that they haven’t shared with you. This is something that has to be met head-on as soon as the issue appears.

Rather than criticizing the person or people involved, avoid conflict by asking for feedback on the project. If you had a conversation at the outset to determine aims and objectives (see point five below), it’s reasonable to ask whether progress is meeting expectations.

Open the way for discussion, and share your own passion for what you’re doing – at the very least, you’ll gain useful insight into any issues, and at best, everyone’s enthusiasm will be rekindled.

4. Slow Progress

Projects can drag on, regardless of the timescale predicted at the outset. The danger is that slow progress can turn into complete inertia.

Projects get delayed for many reasons – the timescale may have been over-ambitious, resources may have been misallocated, or critical staff may have left. The key here is to work out exactly what’s gone wrong, which means evaluating your own issues as well as any that might be affecting the client.

Once you’ve identified the cause(s) of the delay, start working on anything that is within your remit. If it’s a client-side problem, at least you should have clarity about whether it can be resolved.

It can be helpful to break a project down into stages, either concurrent or sequential, to create smaller and easier targets. Above all, be realistic about timescales from the outset.

Here’s an interesting article that goes into the subject more deeply – it’s for graduates, but is easy to apply to projects more generally.

5. Confusion About Deliverables

Whether it’s a lack of understanding on your part or a lack of clarity on the part of the client, not understanding the deliverables is a bad omen for a project – and the worst thing to discover when you reach the point of delivery.

It’s vital to make sure that everyone involved in the project understands and agrees to the project deliverables from the outset. These should be tied down in the project contract, and if they’re not, it’s in your interests to ensure they are added in before you sign up.

If the project is less formal, you still need to draw up a list of deliverables and get the client to agree (or change) these in writing before you start work. This is the only way to ensure that everyone involved knows exactly what they’re supposed to get or do. There’s a good article here that goes into more detail.

Agile Project Management to the Rescue

Now you know the signs that can indicate your project is failing and how to resolve them, you may be interested in a new concept that wraps up a number of these tools and other helpful approaches.

Agile project management focuses on continuous improvement, incremental development, flexibility of scope, and team input – all of which can be leveraged to ensure that a project remains on track. It was born in the high-pressure world of software delivery, but the basics can be applied much more widely (Wikipedia has good basic information).

For example, continuous improvement requires ongoing feedback: agile calls for this to be ‘empirical’, for which read ‘practical’. You can get this sort of feedback by creating a shared checklist that’s constantly updated.

The checklist could ask for team feedback on the project so far: for example, which aspects need work and which are going particularly well. It could also be used to confirm that required outcomes remain the same, and whether any issues have arisen that might necessitate alterations of some sort.

Agile means being flexible enough to respond to changing business situations, and altering deliverables and processes if the client or situation requires it.

This creative approach is teamed with regular planning (in traditional software-based agile management systems this would require a daily briefing, but for other projects a longer, but definitely regular, timeframe might work better).

Here are some more links for a more in-depth look at agile project management, what it is, and its benefits.


There are a number of subtle clues to a failing project that can alert you to trouble early on, and give you time to resolve the issues (if possible). Ensuring project success is also at the heart of agile project management, which provides a useful toolkit. The key lessons here are:

  1. Ensure good communication.
  2. Agree a project support package up front.
  3. Ask for project feedback.
  4. Identify any roadblocks to progress.
  5. Agree deliverables from the outset.
  6. Use agile project management principles to increase your chances of success.

Have you managed to rescue a failing project, and if so, how? Let us know in the comments section below!

Photo credit: StockMonkeys.com

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by Lis
Lis is part of the WordCandy writing team. She has clocked some serious mileage as a freelancer over the years, and loves sharing her expertise here on the Bidsketch blog.