Why is it that we have seen projects that had all the hallmarks of success, ultimately fail? Why have I seen projects that looked doomed to certain failure, reverse and revitalize, and against all the odds, deliver success? My rationale for my thinking, and this is my personal opinion and feelings, is based on my involvement with projects which had all the ingredients for success, good planning, good leadership, appropriate resources and budget, buy-in from key stakeholders and (relatively) clear vision.

Yet, the project was a failure.

I’ve also seen the reverse: poor planning, poor timelines, poor everything and, despite the worst mess you can imagine powered by past failure to launch, the project has succeeded.

My question is why?

What makes the difference between surprising success and startling failure?

The Forgotten Factor X – People

I was once fortunate enough to interview Irwin Jacobs, the founder of Qualcomm and the father of mobile technology (his work is why we all can use cell phones today). As he was generous with his time, we had plenty of off-the-cuff conversations around the subject matter, and he told me something which made the lights go on inside my head:

Give people the right tools and environment, get out of their way, keep others out of their way, and let them do their jobs – they will deliver amazing results, because people are amazing!

A couple of years ago, I had the dubious privilege of taking over a web project for a global nonprofit.

To set the scene, I was the 7th project leader to acquire what had become known within the organization as an albatross. The people involved, including external partners, were thoroughly demoralized, senior management was unrealistic with their expectations, there was no paperwork (nothing – no scope, no project documentation…nada!) – the whole thing was a disaster.

It was an opportunity to put into practice what Irwin had expressed, and what I had previously understood only implicitly: get Factor X involved and see what happens.

Get Out of the Way

My role as project leader became simple: get my team leaders engaged, let them come up with the plan to roll-out, get them the resources they said they needed, and ultimately provide them with a bubble to operate in, free of interference.

I assumed formal responsibility in mid-January 2013, and within 2 weeks my #2 had assembled a technical team, I had engaged external vendors to help with responsive design and a reskin of the shopping cart, and my sometimes truculent digital lead was well on the way to formulating content migration.

It took some time for my people to understand I was serious about launching this albatross, but action is a great motivator, as is delivering what you say you will deliver.

Motivation is Infectious

It seemed to me that suddenly, my team had come alive and my role was relegated to simply ensuring they had what they needed to succeed. At this stage, disbelief had been erased, and while some doubts remained, overall the attitude was, “We are doing this!”

This was infectious – meeting with key stakeholders, who had heard for two years the same spiel I was now giving them, also realized we were serious. I was quietly chuckling inside at a VP who suddenly realized her team had less than 14 days to deliver something they had sat on for 6 months.


Because, until then she just didn’t believe a launch would happen, but now she did.

Factor X Will Overcome and Get Around Failure

So, with some fanfare we went for a launch in March 2013 – and failed.

One taciturn team member, a senior dev guy, who was instrumental in making our ecommerce play nice with our legacy .NET backend, came close to tears – he had worked 16 straight days with no break and extended hours.

My deputy stayed up all night trying to nail down what had happened, furious with himself, and angry with me when I told him to get some rest.

It was a tough Monday morning meeting the following day.

It was a tougher coffee room chance meeting with the CEO too (the temperature suddenly dropped or building maintenance had turned on the AC), and any number of senior echelon stakeholders.

I made a decision to rest the team the following weekend – not popular with my management, but absolutely necessary for the team – they needed to recharge.

Over the next 10 days we tested like crazy, and we went for launch again in April – my role in this was simple – keep senior management out of the way, primarily by tying them up in status meetings.
On a Sunday morning, we went for launch and this time the process took 4 hours and worked like a charm – by 5pm EST, DNS had propagated and live transactions were coming through perfectly fine.

After 2 years, overdue budget, and repeated failure, suddenly we had success.

It was not leadership, it was not budget, nor a good plan – the only reason this web project was rescued was because the team themselves made it work.

People want to do well and they want to succeed – we often overlook that fact, so remind yourself to get out of their way and let them do the amazing, because they will if you let them.

Website Launch