Why Projects Fail

By Summer Teal Simpson Hitch

One thing is true: there’s nothing like a bad project to lead you down a better path. Certainly, we have learned to recognize early and diagnose potential problems in the making. Here are some red flags we are quick to address with clients to ensure a successful project.

Fail 17@2X

I started at Focus Lab in late Summer 2013. I have worked on 76 brand projects, to various degrees, during that time (yep, I counted). Of those 76, a few never really left the ground: someone got bought out or ran out of money, or other such business innerworkings interrupted the early stages of their project. There are also instances where we engaged in a full branding project, delivered the final package, high-fived our clients, and then never saw that brand released to the wild. Sometimes we learned later why that was; sometimes we didn’t.

But of those 76, only two failed completely. My definition of ‘failed’? No final conclusion despite exhaustive rounds of design strategy and iteration. We just couldn’t gain purchase with the client or move the ball down the field. Another handful of clients fall into the almost-failed category: projects that found resolution and a functioning end design, but the path to get there was abysmal at best. In one such case, we were literally fielding 10 separate client requests a day asking us to shift pixels. This went on for weeks. It was mind-numbing, a total value loss for the client and a waste of time for our team.

No one accepts failure well. Least of all Focus Lab. In each instance of failure or near-failure, we fought aggressively for a different outcome. We adjusted our processes, communicated more with the client, attempted to understand psychological impacts, changed out designers or tagged in the entire creative team, paused timelines to clear our heads, extended timelines to provide more time, or added to the scope of work in order to create a system that would better sell the work. Essentially we did everything we could think of to save the project. And when all was said and done, we spent serious time debriefing internally about what we could have done differently and what went wrong.

No one accepts failure well. Least of all Focus Lab.

One thing is true: there’s nothing like a bad project to lead you down a better path. We’ve grown tremendously as a team because of the hardest projects we’ve tackled. Sometimes we’ve recognized and remedied our own weaknesses, other times we learned to stand up for ourselves. Certainly, we have learned to recognize early and diagnose potential problems in the making. Here are some red flags we are quick to address with clients to ensure a successful project.

Clarifying our role and the scope of the project

For the purposes of the projects I touch, we are a branding team, or a communications team. We are not a marketing team. We are not a business strategy team. Our expertise is fluid but also finite. Clients who come to us desperately needing business strategy won’t find the answers they’re looking for in our branding strategy. Clients focused almost entirely on marketing aspects will miss the point of the branding work that should preclude marketing pushes. And clients who need to see the website mockup before they can embrace the logotype are putting the cart before the horse and manipulating us into brainstorming, if not creating, more work than they’ve paid for. From the sales process forth, it’s important to communicate the difference between branding and marketing, brand strategy and business strategy, and specific areas of impact where we plan to add value.

The mark of death

Probably, you don’t need a mark for your brand to succeed. Let’s just get that out of the way. You may want one. It seems the convention to follow. But is it? Countless successful brands have long thrived without a mark. And while there are a few key instances where a mark is beneficial to your brand system, often a mark becomes a hiccup on two fronts.

One is in the design process when you want it to say to your customer: “we sell affordable, quality, whatchamacallits because we understand you like no one else does.” Can a mark say that? Of course not. A brand system can help say that. Accompanying communications, with messaging and visuals, can also help. But the mark is just a small symbol and there’s only so much it can say. The second hiccup of the mark rat race is in user comprehension. Each part of the brand is something the user has to visually interpret, have a visceral reaction to, and then log in their brains, all in seconds. The more they have to interpret, the more potential there is for a barrier to comprehension and, therefore, memorability.

A mark should serve a purpose and should communicate only a few things. Otherwise it’s overkill on multiple fronts.

One thing is true: there’s nothing like a bad project to lead you down a better path. We’ve grown tremendously as a team because of the hardest projects we’ve tackled.

Death by committee

We have long insisted on working with no more than four people on a client team. This allows for multiple perspectives to be represented and for ample creative collaboration. Any more than that (or shifting of those people in and out) is avoided at all costs. There are a few reasons for this. First, ‘design by committee’ is more ‘death by dictatorship of many’ than it is effective collaboration. We end up mediating long-winded, open-ended debates between client teams rather than gaining traction. Players often guard their roles and interests rather than those of the project. Meetings start late and run late, due to more moving parts. We get competing feedback and end up trying to make everyone happy . . . to the detriment of the end goal. We aren’t able to adequately learn to navigate the personalities, or build relationships and trust.

We also frown upon our core client team serving as middle men to a larger collection of stakeholders. This is almost worst-case scenario, because the third party stakeholders are removed from our actual process. So it becomes a giant game of telephone.

We insist that clients select the four representatives who will serve on the project. Of those four we ask for one to be selected as project lead, who makes the final call if and when a final call needs to be made. This doesn’t prevent the team from receiving collaborative input from a broader team in advance of the project kickoff.

When assembling your team of four, consider value of input in the branding process as well as honesty in regards to availability. CEOs often don’t have the time to truly commit to design projects. And they can really sway a team to serving as yes-men rather than offering fair critique. Marketing representatives offer much in the way of messaging and ideation but not so much brand design. Sales and customer service representatives often understand the front lines more than the higher ups. All things to consider. Oh, and we love working with other designers. Unless the designer on your team designed every iteration of your brand to date and will prove resistant to change. That’s no fun.

Lack of constructive feedback

This could be its very own blog post. But suffice it to say that navigating feedback is a necessary soft skill of design teams. Here are some quick dos and don’ts on giving feedback.

  • DO give it. Be proud of your perspective even if you don’t think you know what you’re talking about. No one knows your audience or business better than you.
  • DO do your homework. Spend real time with deliverables and your feelings in response. Give us your takeaways in advance so we can do the same before a scheduled meeting.
  • DO be clear in your feedback. Clarity is king.
  • DO trust your branding team. We’ve been at this for a long time and we definitely have value and insight to provide.
  • DO lean on the brand strategy takeaways from project kickoff. Those should answer many questions and serve as your guide throughout the project. 
  • DON’T be overly personal. It doesn’t matter which colors you like or don’t like personally. It matters more what represents your business, resonates with your customer, and differentiates you from your competitors.
  • DON’T be apathetic. “Good enough” is not our goal.
  • DON’T contradict yourself. Verbal processing is one thing, but let’s make sure we have our marching orders.
  • DON’T be overly critical or negative. That’s blood in the water for a design project. Deliver critical feedback but deliver it respectfully with solutions-based thinking in mind.
  • DON’T dwell in indecisiveness. Some of us struggle with this in life, we get it. But it results in almost total project stagnation. See below.

We have an awesome team of experienced, talented, attentive, intentional designers and a hard-fought, time-tested design process. Trusting that you’re in good hands will only facilitate the project and the outcome.

Anxiety, indecisiveness, or micromanagement of a project by a client (i.e. lack of trust)

The stakes are high in branding projects. It’s a huge investment for an even greater value return. We want it to be as perfect as you do. We feel the pressure and we’re up for the challenge. We have an awesome team of experienced, talented, attentive, intentional designers and a hard-fought, time-tested design process. Trusting that you’re in good hands will only facilitate the project and the outcome.

For better or worse, anxiety is contagious. And nervous clients interrupt the natural flow of creativity by pushing for early deliverables or struggling with decision making. Or worse, they compensate for their nervousness by commandeering the project and dictating each step of the design team. There are no surer means for divestment of creatives. If you want to micromanage your design process, you should hire a freelancer. If you want to participate in a creative process, you have to let go a little and trust that process.

Lack of personal responsibility (AKA 'overnight magic')

Your brand is complete, you launch it to the world, and you sit back and wait for amazing things to happen. But there are naysayers doubting your newly revealed brand; some people just don’t get it. And those product complaints you fielded before your rebrand haven’t stopped. Sales don’t skyrocket. You start questioning whether or not the rebrand worked.

These are classic mistakes on three fronts.

First, you’ll never have global consensus around your brand experience. Don’t expect it. The most iconic brands have taken lots of heat over the years. Second, a great brand can’t fix the internal problems of your company. Those are up to you. And lastly, great things take time. You have to let that audience recognition, emotion, and brand equity grow.

And it will grow. Just be patient.