Project Purgatory

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There you are. Things are rolling along. You’re halfway through a project ... your team’s engaged, turning out good work ... and you’re ticking off milestones. Then everything grinds to a halt.

You’re still missing assets you need to keep going. Maybe you can’t get client feedback. Communication slows to a trickle, or nothing at all. You tread water as long as you can, thinking this will resolve itself in the next week or two. It doesn’t. Finally you’re forced to hit pause, shuffle client priorities, and put your team to work on something else.

Welcome to project purgatory. It’s a common phenomenon that derails campaigns, websites and video shoots, while confounding even well-meaning clients and vendors. It has real costs, though they’re not always obvious.

Before we get into those, let’s look at some ways we get here.

What Happened?

Busy, Busy, Busy

Running a company — any company — isn’t easy. The smaller the company, the more hustle you need to stretch fewer resources. The larger the company, the higher the stakes, and the more tedious tasks multiply. You do your best to prioritize on the fly.

Yet we’re all guilty of letting what seems urgent trump what might be more impactful. 

Another meeting. Your email’s blowing up. Someone wants that thing asap. Next to these, a project that’s not fully formed just doesn’t seem tangible. So you push it off to the messy corner of your desk, and promise you’ll get to it soon.

Delayed Payments

Accounting and procurement departments are their own beasts. They have their hands full, too, no doubt. And a vendor wheedling for a payment can seem like a pest.

But those payments compensate the talent, engineers, and managers who build and maintain projects on the other end. Without that revenue, work stops. Resources get shifted to projects with positive cash flow, since that’s what keeps the lights on and the gears greased.

It’s a physics problem, not a whim or ego trip. While it’s understood there’s a lag between invoicing and the wire coming through, too long of a drought … 45 days, 60 days … and the project withers.

Indecision

When you make an investment, especially a large one, you want to make sure every dime is working as hard as it can. That’s fair.

Often that means asking probing questions, covering every angle. That’s good. Though it can lead to paralysis just as often — an inability to choose one option over another, lest you make the wrong choice. Sometimes second- or third-guessing recommendations. Losing the big picture among the smaller details.

It’s true — now and then a project goes down like the Hindenburg. So we’re always on alert. But that’s not usually the case. Most glitches are easily corrected, most ideas are testable. Most decisions, especially with today’s tech, are fairly fluid.

Too Many Cooks

No one would seriously suggest that key stakeholders don’t provide valuable insights. Or they shouldn’t have a say. You could argue, however, that input needs a filter. Fewer decision makers is better. Someone has to make the final call.

Without a gatekeeper, or criteria for weighing input, the flood of opinions, ideas, suggestions and conflicting directions will drown the strongest team. A tsunami does not respect a beautiful backstroke.

When that happens, unnecessary work multiplies and hours pile up. Or worse, everything stops until someone can struggle back to the surface and get some air.

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What Happens Then …

Hidden Costs

Every sizable delay means the team has to switch up tasks to remain productive. And that means additional time to get back up to speed weeks later.

There are also additional project management hours that must be invested to try and uncover issues, help clients troubleshoot if possible, and just generally keep communication lines open.

In the end, this results in retreading a lot of the same ground — just to keep running in place.

Fractured Focus

You’ve probably heard of the concept of flow. It exists at the team level, as well as for the individual. From ideation to coordination to execution, that flow allows teams to do their best work.

When it’s interrupted, inspiration and motivation may dry up. Meaningful connections can be lost, and important insights overlooked. And operational efficiencies that could normally be exploited become flaming inefficiencies to juggle.

Delays Breed Delays

Unless you’re on retainer, it’s impossible to keep calendars open indefinitely to accommodate a never-ending production schedule.

Availability is a finite resource. Other clients are waiting in the wings, vying for attention. Business development has to proceed apace, and empty slots filled for the coming quarter.

Worst case scenario, a massive delay can remove a client from the calendar entirely, until the underlying issues are resolved or it becomes an internal priority again.

Then you’re not looking at a delay of a few weeks, but deliverables or launch dates potentially pushed back for months.

Hey — We’re In This Together

This is simply an explainer, not a finger-pointing screed. A look at what agencies deal with when projects stall, and how they think about it. Yep — delays can happen because of agency screw-ups or mismanagement, too. And then we / they should own it. We’re all working toward the same goals.

So what can we do the next time we see a jam coming? Let’s keep communicating. Tell us how we can help. Or just be honest about the hurdles you’re facing, and what that probably means for the project. We’ll work up the best solution we can find, together.

But please … don’t leave us trapped down in project purgatory. In that dark, hazy place, no one escapes unscathed.