How to Initiate a Conversation About a Failing Project

Nov 17, 2016
6 Min Read
How to Initiate a Conversation About a Failing Project

How to Initiate a Conversation About a Failing Project

If you have nagging (or larger!) concerns about how a project on your team is going, don’t wait to raise the topic. Sometimes managers delay these conversations because they want to give their team more room to course-correct first, or they figure that they should wait and see how things develop, or they feel awkward about saying “hey, I don’t think this is the quality we need.” (<<Be sure to check out that link if you have trouble bringing up work quality issues with your manager). But in most cases, waiting to speak up does your staff a disservice, because it means that they aren’t privy to your worries and thus can’t right the ship … or in some cases, they don’t realize that they need to share information with you that might alter your assessment.

Here’s how to initiate a conversation with someone who’s running a project that you have concerns about.

1. Invite the person to talk. If you have regular one-on-one meetings, it’s fine to bring it up there by just saying something like, “Can we talk about how the X project is going?” But if you think the person will do better with some advance warning that the conversation is coming, make a point of flagging it ahead of time. That doesn’t need to be a big deal; it can be just a simple email saying something like “Would you add to our list for tomorrow that we should talk about how the X project is going?”

2. Share your observations. In the meeting, share what’s worrying you, and make sure you use concrete examples, which will lead to a more productive conversation than if you’re vague. For example, say something like, “I have some concerns about how the X project is going. It looks like ticket sales aren’t where we’d wanted them to be by now, and I’ve talked to a few VIPs who hadn’t heard about the event at all.”

3. Ask the staff member to share her perspective on how things are going. You can do this by asking, “What’s your take” or “Are there things that I’m missing?” This is a crucial step because both of you will get far more out of the conversation if it’s genuinely a discussion, not a one-way critique delivery. So don’t jump to conclusions about what’s going on; solicit the staff person’s perspective, both so that she feels heard and because you might learn something that changes your own assessment.

Alternate approach: In some cases, you might reverse steps #2 and #3, and open the conversation by asking the staff member for her assessment of how the project is going. This can make sense when the staff member is likely to identify on her own the issues you were planning on raising. But be more cautious of doing this with someone who doesn’t have a lot of self-awareness, because if the person delivers a glowing assessment of a project that you think is deeply troubled, that can make the conversation more awkward than if you just cut to the chase at the beginning.

4. Commit to next steps. Once you’ve talked through what’s happening, wrap up the conversation with a plan for the path forward. What actions will the staff member take to get things back on course? And don’t forget to decide when you’ll next check in about how things are going – which can be as simple as “Let’s plan to look at these numbers again in a week and see if this has gotten us back on track or whether we need to do something more.”

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