Ten Ways to Screw up a Project

by Barry on March 14, 2010

Danger sign

After way too many years screwing up projects for clients, I thought that it would be good to share my experiences so that you too can learn how to screw up projects for your clients. Be forewarned that you cannot expect to screw up a project by accident as it will take years to master these techniques.

Before we get to the list, let’s cover a few basics. First, the best time to screw up a project is right in the beginning. Might as well start screwing up during the pitch. Or if that’s not possible, there are plenty of opportunities during planning and concepting. This means that you can screw up early and then relax.

Second, there is really only three ways to screw up: failure to plan, failure to communicate and failure to execute. But don’t worry because that still gives us plenty of opportunities.

Below are the top ten ways to screw up a project, with useful tips for not screwing up your project.

1. Avoid putting things in writing. It far easier to work off a handshake and a beer. Otherwise it just irritates everyone and makes them nervous. This includes NDAs, Statement of Works and other agreements.

Tip: Any agreements as to scope, deliverables, schedule, cost and key assumptions must be in-writing. This protects both you and your client. It is crucial to get agreement on these aspects before you start work, otherwise you run the risk of not delivering what the client expects. Any agreements should also spell out how you will work with the client (e.g., how many rounds of review and how many executions are you delivering), how expenses are handled, and how often you can invoice (getting paid for your work is a good thing, right?).

2. Never tell the client “no”. This avoids those unpleasant conversations such as “we can’t deliver this campaign within your budget” or “we need another two weeks for production”. After all, we want the client to be our friend, right?

3. Always manage client expectations upward. We might as well make it a challenge for the team. Giving them all that free time on nights and weekends can only lead to trouble. Keeping everyone busy means they don’t have time to work on their portfolios.

4. Avoid all client contact. No good can come from it.

Tip: we’ve always found that having an open client relationship providing transparency is one of the keys to success. Living under the mantra of “no secrets” helps you move from a vendor to a partnership relationship as you build trust and respect with your client. This comes from managing client expectations (always under promise and over deliver), having frequent client communications (daily or every other day touch points), and demonstrating the fortitude to be direct and honest with the client. It takes a lot of courage to have those direct conversations and most people end up just telling the client what they wants to hear. Of course don’t just tell the client “no”. Your message should always be solutions-oriented so that you are coming up with creative ways to solve the issue at hand.

5. Change team members frequently; encourage your client to do the same. This way nobody gets bored and nobody gets blamed (“It happened before my time”). Establishing and maintaining a relationship with clients takes time and it is far easier to have a built-in scapegoat for everything that goes wrong.

6. Clients love surprises! They’re just like children. Especially right before your campaign goes live.

7. Blame is a powerful management tool! Point fingers first. Ask questions second. Then shoot the messenger.

Tip: It is the nature of projects to go awry. When this happens: (1) stay calm and analyze the situation, don’t over-react and don’t get defensive, (2) take responsibility if you screwed up. Admit the mistake. Do so quickly, (3) develop a plan to resolve the situation focusing on what can be done differently next time to ensure that this problem does not happen again, (4) communicate the plan to everyone involved, and (5) monitor the situation.

8. Limit the client to one round of Creative. Or let the client have unlimited rounds of Creative. Or don’t do any Creative.

9. Allow the client (or your art director) to make unlimited changes. Once the project moves into production, allow the client to keep making changes. Think of it as job security. Plus who’s to say when the creative is really done?

10. Don’t waste time tracking analytics. No one reads those media reports anyway. And optimizing is for wimps.

It may look hard to screw up a project but with a lot of practice, you too can become an expert at screwing up a project.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carrie Glassmeyer March 16, 2010 at 3:00 pm

I love this!!!! I have been re-reading and laughing aloud, alone! I have also posted it on Twitter and sent it to a ton of fellow PMs. I am also going to print it out and wherever I go, I will hang it or post it up in my cubicle or office. Great writing style and it pretty much covers everything.

Sometimes, I really do think that the best way to convey important messaging is by saying what NOT to do, instead of what TO DO.



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