Blog Post

Raising the Dead: Bringing Failed Projects Back to Life

1217399_sinistro_2Recently, I’ve noticed that more new clients are coming my way with a single request: to help them revive or resurrect a project, web site, or product that has failed in the past. I’m also capable of creating failed projects myself — sometimes I look at my track record and try to fix my worst projects hoping that I can make them better.

How do you know if a project has failed? Although you can have specific quantifiers such as revenue or number of users, the simple way is to ask yourself this: “Did it meet any of its objectives?” If the answer is no, then that means you’ve got a failed project in your hands. Some of these projects can remain buried and forgotten, but there are others that you can’t stop thinking about even years down the road.

What do you do if there’s an old failed project that you want to bring back to life?

Why Try Again?

The first thing I do when I try to resurrect an old project, whether it’s mine or a client’s, is to evaluate why it should be done. The reason is sometimes simple. It could be that when the project started, the people working on it weren’t mature or skilled enough to give it the proper follow-through. Now that they know better, they think it’s time to try again.

This was the case with one of my new clients. When he started his blog, he bought into get-rich-quick schemes and short-term tips on how to boost traffic. As his blog’s advertising income diminished and he saw few returning visitors, he called the project a failure. After looking into his mistakes, he’s determined to try again. It’s the classic case of being passionate about a project but not knowing enough to execute it well.

There may be many reasons to revive a failed project, but there’s one you should avoid. Don’t bring it back to life just because you have nothing better to do. I have to admit that sometimes this is the justification I have, and every time I use it all I get is a new way to fail at an old project. “Well, I need something new to work on…” is not going to cut it if you want to rework an old mistake and turn it into something great.

Evaluate Your Past Efforts

The first things we need to look at are our mistakes. In “The Dip“, Seth Godin lists 7 different reasons why one might fail. This includes the lack of time, money, or enthusiasm. Other reasons include picking the wrong thing to try, getting scared, not being serious enough, or focusing too much on the short term. In the failed projects I’ve evaluated, I can see that all of them failed because of at least one of these reasons.

Many of my failed projects, and even some of my clients’ failed projects, were also the result of a lack of definition. Here are some of its common symptoms:

  • Saying “Our target audience is everybody.”
  • Adding all the possible features and widgets into the project, even when they are unnecessary.

Apart from looking at these past mistakes, we also need to celebrate our successes. In the midst of all the chaos, what worked for you? What went well before the project failed? By looking back at both our successes and our mistakes, we can be better prepared for our next attempt to make it work.

Starting Over

If you’ve realized that resurrecting your failed project is the best thing to do, there are some things you need to keep in mind:

  • Remember to quantify. “What’s measured improves,” as Peter Drucker once wrote. If you can, quantify the hours, cost, and other resources used up by your project. Other necessary statistics such as sales, users, and bug reports should also be recorded. By keeping a close eye on the numbers, we can predict most incoming challenges and plan for them accordingly.
  • Things to avoid. Instead of just writing a lengthy to-do list, why not factor in your previous mistakes and remind yourself what you shouldn’t do? It’s easy to fall back on bad habits, especially if new processes take longer to pay off.
  • Keep it simple. Whether you’re relaunching an old product, service, community, or blog, start with the simplest version you can possibly think of. This allows your project to remain flexible when there are a lot of unpredictable and volatile factors that may affect your success.

The truth is that it takes a lot of planning, effort and passion to bring an old project back to life. If done right, the attempt is usually worth it.

Have you ever tried to revive a failed project such as a blog, online community or an app? What was your experience like?

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6 Responses to “Raising the Dead: Bringing Failed Projects Back to Life”

  1. Great post! Before I restart a project the first thing I do is find out why the project died in the first place. Then I decide if it is worth starting again. I have to avoid restarting a project “just because”.

  2. That’s a suitable title for the occasion.

    3 things I have learned about reviving dead projects:

    1- Another Project Manager should revive them.
    2- There was a good reason why they were killed in the first place.
    3- It’s better not to disturb the dead.

    Additionally, I find that going back to dead projects can easily frustrate both the Project Manager and the Project Team, and most revived projects end up being killed, again.

    Having said that, I’ve published an article on “avoiding dead projects“, in case you’re stuck in position #1 above.

  3. We’ve had clients that needed help reviving an web app project. I find that many times people had great ideas but didn’t do the due dilligence up front to see whether or not their solution was a desired one, or they would approach the creation of their solution from their point of view and stick to it. For these folks, we readjust and find out what the current (if any) or potential users want out of the app. Another common issue is thinking that they need every feature in the book to launch. It has now been proven many times that you need to focus on what makes your application unique, and focus on that.