Losing Gracefully: What to Do When You Can't Deliver

snake-eyesMuch as we wish it wasn’t true, on occasion we take on a contract that gets us in over our heads. Especially when we’re just starting, out or are unfamiliar with the field or industry in which we’re working. Obviously realizing that you can’t deliver what the client is expecting, and what you originally agreed to produce, can be a very stressful experience. It may even seem like it’s the end of your professional life.

It most likely isn’t, so don’t panic. There are steps you can take to mitigate the damage and come out as clean as possible on the other side.

I’ve run into this situation on two previous occasions. Once, I brought it on myself; the other time, the firm I was working for passed me a project due to staff transitions that had already been handed off so many times there was no clear record of who began it. The following tips come from what I learned from both experiences.

Review Your Initial Commitment

Before you resign yourself to failure, make sure you aren’t mistakenly writing off a success. The parameters of an engagement have a tendency to shift once you’re underway, and you end up doing work that you never planned or promised to do in the first place. The temptation is just to keep working as long as the client is willing to pay you, regardless of scope changes, but that’s not always the best way to go about it.

If you’ve already accomplished what you intended, and you haven’t renegotiated based on a scope change, you might want to bring it up with your client, especially if you feel you’re getting out of your depth. Better to cut your losses and suggest another service provider with expertise in the new area. Your client will think better of you than if you carried the project through to completion but did a sub-par job.

Provide a Transition Package

If you have to leave work half-done, your client will likely want to have it completed either in-house, or by someone else. You can make that person’s job a lot easier, and soothe your client, by preparing a hand-off package. This can contain any number of things depending on what you’re working on, but make sure to detail your workflow to date, what has and hasn’t been accomplished, and what might need to be reviewed or corrected.

A smooth hand-off is especially important if you’re giving the project to someone else in a firm that you work for, but it’s a definite must either way. It proves to your client that you’re a consummate professional, even if this particular situation is beyond your expertise.

Propose a Solution You Can Provide

Just because you may not be able to give the client exactly what they want doesn’t mean you can’t come up with another, possibly better solution. There are often more than one means to an end, and providing a client with alternatives will also show them that you’re committed to the project and trying to exhaust all possibilities before throwing in the towel.

Be careful how you frame alternative suggestions. Some clients will respect your opinion immediately because they hired you. Others, though, will be quite set about how and what they want you to deliver, so proposing alternatives will be a delicate matter.


In the best of all worlds, we’d all finish all of our contracts with a 100 percent satisfied customer, who got exactly what they were looking for. In fact, that’s not always possible. Falling short is a depressing event for any freelancer or contractor, but with a little care, it can be just another unpleasant memory and not a career-ending disaster.

What do you do when you can’t deliver on a project?

Image by flickr user purpletwinkie.


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