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You might call it the project from hell, the death march or the one that ended up in the ditch. Most of us have at least one project horror story, though some of us have seen more than our share. If you haven't experienced a project that's gone sideways, consider yourself in the lucky minority.

When a project runs aground, it's almost always avoidable—at least in hindsight. Projects that end up sideways usually kick off with unbridled enthusiasm; everyone expects sky-high results.

That euphoria often sows the seeds of future trouble. In one case, a giddy project team was confident that the project approach would literally transform the company. But the team was stymied every step of the way—and squandered almost $6 million before the company's executive committee shut the project down.

In the planning phases of that $6 million debacle, the project team had worked through the plan to make sure the project tasks could be completed. Sadly, the team failed to focus on the possible minefields ahead.

How to Stay on Track

Here's a tool to help you keep project setbacks to a minimum. Use the simple 2 x 2 matrix below to sort out potential problems and create a strategy for handling most anything that gets thrown at your team:

Begin by making a list of every conceivable predicament that could crop up, no matter how impossible it seems. Once you have your doomsday list, use the matrix to categorize each predicament in two ways.

First, assess how the event might impact the project. A low impact event may slow the schedule slightly, while a high impact one could mean project cancellation. Then, forecast the probability of each event occurring. The categorization process is more art than science, but it helps you focus on anticipating risks rather than waiting to be blindsided.

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Michael W. McLaughlin is the coauthor, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and the editor of Management Consulting News (www.managementconsultingnews.com) and the Guerrilla Consultant. For more information, visit www.guerrillaconsulting.com.