How to Kickstart a Stalled Project

stalled project

Projects begin with excitement. The new and different, even for a daunting task, can give us the enthusiasm and energy to plan out the best possible project, rally the troops, and begin to figure out timelines.

And then…everything. Just. Stops.

So you scramble, because failure isn’t an option—this project needs to get done, or else. Or you do everyone else’s work for them because you’re afraid to lose control. Either way, you’re stressed out, burned out, and might only be exacerbating the original problem.

It’s incredibly frustrating to hit a roadblock in your project, but no matter your role, it’s the team’s job to figure out how to move past it.

If your project isn’t going as planned (and let’s face it, what project does?) keep these things in mind:

  1. Mindset and Expectations Matter

Starting a project with everything set in stone and expectations that nothing will change is not only unrealistic, it’s toxic for you and your team. Regardless of industry, our world moves too fast and changes too frequently for that to be attainable—and creates a culture where you’re doomed to fail.

Manage expectations from the beginning. Says Rebecca Salmaso, Sales Enablement Program Manager at TripAdvisor, “I make sure that everyone is on board, understands what we’re trying to deliver, and agrees upon the deadline.”

Then, when the project inevitably changes, staying focused on relationships matter. “I put a heavy emphasis on relationship throughout projects, but especially at the beginning,” says Salmaso. “This allows me to understand everyone’s strengths and anticipate sources of conflict that might arise from competing priorities.”

Before a project even starts, if your expectations aren’t aligned, you’ll inevitably stall.

  1. Take Emotions Out of the Picture 

When we pursue a project, we automatically become emotionally attached to it. We want to succeed, and so when the project isn’t going smoothly, we wrap our own anxieties about being successful as people into the project.

“It’s very easy to get emotionally wrapped up in roadblocks,” says Salmaso. “I always think to take a step back…to make sure we keep moving forward and there are no surprises to those involved.”

To do this, put on your analytical hat and pretend you’re a consultant coming in to help this project—you’ve never seen it or met any of the participants. Ask yourself: why is this project stalling? What is the impact of time lost due to this roadblock, and how will it impact other project X, Y, or Z? Are there dependencies causing this roadblock, or is it something to do with the team? What additional information are we missing?

Dissect the problem the same way a scientist would, step by step. If you don’t understand the problem, you’ll never get to a solution. 

  1. Break it Down into Manageable Pieces

Once you know the problem at hand, start to break it down. It can seem insurmountable to completely redesign a website, implement a new system, or complete a successful acquisition. But each of those things require many smaller tasks done my entire teams of people—not just you.

Figuring out the major milestones and breaking down the project into everything that needs to be done can make it less daunting, but also more manageable—and easier to delegate so that the whole team can work together more effectively.

  1. Keep the Lines of Communication Open

“Don’t be afraid to tell your project team to slow down and clearly articulate risk when you see it,” says Salmaso. “If you try to keep this hidden, it’ll only come out worse later, like a bad secret.”

For any project, communication is key. When you break things down into manageable chunks, don’t keep that to yourself. Says Salmaso, “Offer to help or explain things when they are unclear. I’ve found if you take the time to understand them, they are more receptive to working together.” Chances are you’re not the only one confused or lost in the process, regardless of who will admit it.

For your team to be successful, discard the idea of a “need to know” employee. Everyone needs to know. Whether they choose to pay attention is a different issue. Sharing everything about the project—including that it’s stuck, but we’re in this together—bonds you closer as a team and will help you fight through your roadblock.

Your project team isn’t made up of robots. We’re human. So relate to one another as such. After you’ve done all of your analysis of the problem, don’t forget where emotions have their place. When there’s an issue, says Salmaso, “Be personable, but direct. Care about people and ask questions about what’s going on outside of your shared project.”

In more practical terms, this might mean trying real-time communication methods like Slack, forming regular stand-ups or status roundtables (no more than 10 minutes, and stick to it!), or, in high pressure or launch situations, keeping a call line open and on for the duration of the day.

  1. Celebrate Success—no Matter How Small

Our brains naturally focus on the negative. Called negativity bias, it means our brains react more strongly to negative news (like a roadblock) than positive ones. We’re always seeking out what can go wrong—it’s the key to our survival.

As the leader of a project team, it’s critical to celebrate successes, no matter how small, to prevent negativity bias from dragging down the whole team. Increasing the frequency of small positive moments will make a significant difference in the happiness of your team, and on their ability to get things done more productively.

“Have post-mortem meetings when things do not go well, and then drop the negatives of the past, taking only the learnings you need, and focus on moving forward,” says Salmaso.

Think about your last project. When you completed a major milestone, did you think about how much went into that? How you came together to solve a problem? Or did you say, “What’s next?” and immediately focus on the next problem at hand? The majority of us do the latter. Next time, try to take a step back before saying “What’s next,” to congratulate the team for solving a difficult challenge and build momentum so you can keep moving forward.

Every project runs into stops and starts. Keeping these tips in mind can help you remove your emotions from the issue and always move forward—so you can get the job done.

About the Author

Kayla Lewkowicz hails from the small town of Hopkinton, MA, home of the Boston Marathon. A marketer by day and freelance writer by night, she's a passionate storyteller, reader, hiker, swimmer, runner, and eater. She loves connecting people and ideas and helping customers realize their full potential at Litmus Software. Like what she has to say? Subscribe to her blog or say hello on Twitter @kllewkow.