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.

Usually, project teams resist this kind of thinking; they prefer not to focus on the negative aspects of a project, especially during the euphoric outset. Like it or not, the beginning is the best time to get the potential pitfalls out in the open.

Harvard professor and author Rosabeth Moss Kanter observed that when groups focus on "the things that could go wrong—including nuclear war—they also feel stronger because they've anticipated the worst. The next question is, "Now that you see what could possibly go wrong, what do you do to be ready for it?"

Getting Ready

Low Impact/Low Probability Glitches

These surprises can be handled by reacting to events as they unfold rather than creating an elaborate strategy in advance. For example, a project team discovered that its assigned room had poor cell phone reception. That had a slight impact on the project—until the team was outfitted with pagers, which had good reception.

It was a nuisance that didn't seriously affect the team, and it was resolved immediately. There will be snags on every project, and the team can usually react as needed.

Low Impact/High Probability Roadblocks

These events may slow the project only slightly, but because of their high probability you should plan your reaction to roadblocks in advance. In one instance, poor weather prevented key people from getting to crucial meetings, causing decision-making delays.

Because the project was occurring during a Midwest winter, the project managers wisely planned for project slippage specifically due to bad weather. The impact of high-probability events should be explicitly considered as the project plan is crafted.

High Impact/Low Probability Bombshells

A high impact event can completely derail a project, so focus planning efforts here even if the event probability is low. For dilemmas in this category, you definitely need a Plan B.

Take the case of the project manager who suddenly fell seriously ill. The project fell off schedule immediately. The team's lack of a suitable replacement caused a long delay in the project and confusion among the team members.

For high-impact/low-probability events, be sure to have fallback options, like a surefooted leader to step in if an emergency occurs.

High Impact/High Probability Disasters

You want this quadrant of the matrix to be empty. If it isn't, run for cover. In one case, a project team began work with only 50% of the required team members. The scope of the effort and the capacity of the team were completely misaligned. The result was a high probability—more like a certainty—that the project wouldn't get done. Retooling the plan is the only way to avoid project disasters.

10 Common Sources of Surprise

Look back at your projects that worked well and those that didn't; both will provide valuable clues about potential problems. Consider these 10 common surprises that can put any project team on the ropes:

  1. Unknown stakeholders are people who have influence over a project's direction, outcome, resources or schedule without the project team's knowledge at the outset of the planning process.

  2. Unexpected resistance goes beyond the normal objections to change that project teams routinely encounter. As you might guess, unknown stakeholders are often the source of unexpected resistance.

  3. External events can have a profound affect on any project. A change in a competitor's strategy, for example, can stop a project dead in its tracks.

  4. Chemistry is how well a project team works together. Poor chemistry on a team can contribute to highly negative behavior and can jeopardize project success.

  5. Late delivery of anything generally wreaks havoc with project schedules and creates unplanned time pressure on project activities.

  6. Fuzzy project scope results in a lack of a common understanding about what the project is intended to accomplish. Without agreement about where the project is going, you probably won't get there.

  7. Lack of early, demonstrable progress can create a perception that the project is floundering, even if it isn't. Project teams shouldn't keep their accomplishments a secret. Especially on large projects, plan to achieve a milestone every 100 days, at a minimum, and make sure everyone involved knows when it's reached.

  8. Executive turnover can cause a change in project direction, or may even result in a project being canceled. That has been known to happen even when the investment in the project would be lost.

  9. Project team emergencies occur with regularity, especially during large or lengthy projects. Losing a team member for an extended period can change the dynamics and productivity of a team.

  10. Ineffective communication always leads to problems and will make project results unpredictable. Be sure that communication travels in all directions, and as far into the organization as possible, to help locate unknown stakeholders, identify areas of unexpected resistance and prepare for the unexpected.

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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 ( and the Guerrilla Consultant. For more information, visit