Project Failure

project failure project failureWhy Projects Fail So Often

Some organizations have project failure rates that threaten their existence. In some cases they can’t deliver to a customer or client profitably. In other cases they can’t deliver new products and services that allow them to successfully compete. The failure rates are as high as 70%. Enterprise Project Management Hub

Most Organizations Have a 70% Project Failure Rat

Project success = produce planned deliverables, within budget and on time (including approved changes). Using this definition of success, we find that most organizations have 70% project failure rates.  That project failure rate wastes so much money and human resources that even a small increase in the success rate is worth a lot. But the solution is not easy. Poor performance causes high project failure.  The poor performance is at three levels in the organization: executives, project managers and team members.  To cut the rate of failure, project managers must coach both the executives (subtly) and their team members (directly) about their roles.  And implementation of a project process in the organization is vital to reducing the project failure rate to under 20%.

How To Avoid Project Failure: Executive’s Role

Executives set clear strategic objectives for projects. They ensure all projects yield business benefits, and they allocate resources based on priorities. Most executives fail at their project role and this contributes to project failure.  Here’s how they usually operate. An executive calls two subordinate managers into a meeting and says, “We have a mess in customer service and we have to fix it. This has to be priority #1.  Drop everything else and clean up the mess. Install new systems and procedures and whatever else we need for World Class Customer Service!  In fact, we’ll call it that – the WCCS Project.”

One of the managers says, “Didn’t we do that last year?  I mean the acronym we used was different but boy, this project sounds familiar.”

The other manager says, “You’re right.  In fact we’ve done this 3 times since I’ve been here.”

The executive snaps back, “Yes, and each earlier attempt failed.  Let’s do it right this time.”

The two managers exchange pained looks as the executive goes on, “Now, I have two other ideas for projects to cut costs and improve service. So here is what I…”

The first manager interrupts with a groan, “You always have great ideas, boss, but our plates are full.  Our first-line supervisors are already spending half their time on projects and their real jobs are suffering.  The engineering and technical staffs are all working 70 hour weeks.  Something has to give.”

The executive frowns and says, “I know what’s going on down there and there’s plenty of time to squeeze in a few more projects.  Your people just have to work smarter not harder!”

Instead of giving the project managers clear unambiguous objectives , the executive gave them mission statement mush. There was no assessment of the project’s business value. Additionally, he refused to tackle the politically difficult task of setting project priorities for allocating the limited resources. Project Rescue

How To Avoid Project Failure: Project Manager’s Role

Project managers conceive, manage and control projects. They use best practice techniques to ensure the projects deliver their planned outcomes efficiently. Many project managers also fail in their role and contribute to project failure. This is how they operate. A newly promoted project manager enters the cubicle of an experienced project manager and says, “I’m really nervous about my new project.  The way my director was talking this morning, the world may end if this project fails.  I’m gonna tell my family not to expect me to leave work on time for the next six months.  My boss said this is priority number one!  I’m worried that I’ll be in real trouble if I don’t bring it in on time and on budget.”

The experienced project manager laughs and says, “You’ll laugh too after you’ve heard that speech about 50 times.  On the first day they all talk loud and long about how important the project is.  But when you ask them to spend an hour or two planning this critically important project, they’re too busy.  When you ask them to make sure the project team members from other departments actually show up to work on your projects, they’re too busy for that too.”

The rookie relaxes and says, “Okay you’ve been there and I haven’t.  I’ll take your advice. Can you tell me how the company wants project plans and schedules put together?”

The experienced project manager chuckles again and says, “We have no standard methodology.  Every project manager in the company just wings it.  You can’t possibly put together a plan when executives make you start work before they decide what they want.  When you try to define the scope or even ask what the project is supposed to produce, what you usually get is a long speech about how we need to react quickly and stay flexible.  The best thing to do is write down what they want you to do first and do it.  Then go back and ask them what they want you and the team to do next.  They want to micromanage everybody anyway. There’s no sense creating a lot of plans and schedules – they’re always a joke.”

The rookie gasps and says, “You’ve got to be kidding.  This is a successful organization.  How can we be successful without project plans and schedules?”

The experienced project manager smiles and replies, “I’ll help you with that. I’ve got a bunch of old project plans and some really big work breakdown structures you can use to copy and paste.  If anyone asks, you’ll have a really big plan and a highly detailed work breakdown structure that no one will ever look at anyway. But you won’t be responsible for project failure.”

Instead of the project managers pushing for the use of best practices, they act like order-takers at a drive-in restaurant. They give little thought or energy to planning or how to avoid problems before they occur.

How To Avoid Project Failure: Project Team Members’ Role

Team members make accurate estimates of the work and time. They report status accurately so problems are identified early. Many team members fail in this role and contribute to project failure.  This is how they operate. Two technical professionals with heavy project workloads meet at a table in the company cafeteria.  The first technical professional, who is new to the company, grumbles, “They gave me three new project assignments this morning. I was afraid to say anything but there is no way I can get them all done by the due dates. It is more work than three people could do.”

The second technical professional laughs, “They’re always starting new projects and if you try to do all of them on time, you’ll kill yourself for nothing. Just pad the estimates by 50 or 60% so the project manager can’t blame you for the project failure. There are so many half-done projects floating around that no one remembers them all.  My rule is that if no one has talked about a project in the past month, I don’t do any work on it.”

The first professional replies, “But when we start these projects, the boss says I am committed to the estimates and completion dates. That’s exactly what he did on some projects two weeks ago.”

The second professional laughs again, “Oh yes, you’re committed.  Has the boss asked you about any of those older projects recently?”

“Well no.”

“Then they’re dead ducks.  Work on the projects people are screaming about.”

“But I’ve put dozens of hours into some of those old projects,” complains the first technical professional.  “Does the organization want me to just throw that time away?”

Shaking his head, the second technical professional replies, “I think we waste about a third of our time on projects we never finish. And we have high project failure rates on the ones we do complete. That’s why you shouldn’t get excited about flushing another one down the drain.”

Instead of making accurate estimates of the amount of work and time required, project team members focus on avoiding blame.

How To Avoid Project Failure Summary

Organizations that consistently succeed with projects perform well at every level in the project management process:

  • They control the initiation of projects; planning, approving and monitoring projects based on the business value those projects produce.
  • They manage the pool of project resources just as they manage their capital budgets; allocating people’s time and money to projects based on the payback.
  • They follow a consistent methodology for all projects; holding people accountable for measurable achievements.

To learn a complete methodology for project success, consider our private online training.

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Project Approval

 Project Approval Process

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The project approval process varies from organization to organization. In some, it is a rational process of strategic and tactical planning. In others, it is a highly charged political game where project managers keep their backs to the wall to avoid a dagger from behind. Whatever the environment, there are two classic fantasies that executive sponsors play whenever the phrase “project approval” is mentioned. There is also a game project managers play to cope with the sponsors’ demands. Project Phases Main Page

Project Approval is Executive Fantasy Land

Project sponsors and high-level stakeholders think that if their organization has good project managers, the project approval process will go like this:

The project manager strides confidently to the front of the Board Room. The long table before them is filled with corporate big shots. The PM makes one rock solid commitment after another. There is no whining about contingencies or risks. The PM listens politely to a question about budget and the completion date and then says, “We WILL complete the project for $3,123,876.56 and the last of our 1,347 tasks will end on March 9th, 2016 at 3:42 PM.”

As the executives applaud, the PM holds up a hand for silence and says, “That’s Eastern Standard Time,” and flashes a shy smile as the executives go wild with excitement and awe.

Executive sponsors who live in this fantasyland think that projects have no risk. Budgets and completion dates can be set in stone and any failure to hit them means that someone goofed off and didn’t do their duty to the organization.

In this project approval fantasyland, a project is a machine. The executives push buttons and twirl some dials and the project machine spits out the result on time and within budget. Sponsors merely give project managers the budgets and completion dates and they all come true with a little hard work. If an executive wants a project result early, it is just a matter of twisting the “due date dial”.

This project approval fantasy triggers a lot of destructive executive behavior:

  • They force change after change on a project and then feel personally betrayed when it is late or over budget.
  • They treat a project manager as a fool and a liar when the PM won’t give them a finish date commitment during the first planning meeting.
  • They sneer at requests for budget and duration extensions, considering them a sign of weakness and sloth.

Project Approval is a Used Car Lot

In other organizations, the roles and actions surrounding the project approval process resemble transactions on a sleazy used car lot. The executives are the innocent customers and the PM is a slick shyster in fancy clothes. Here the approval process goes like this:

The executives stroll onto the used car lot, looking for simple but effective transportation. No high-powered hot rods, no fancy wheel covers or custom interiors. Just a basic car to carry the executives where they want to go. The PM slithers out from under a rock and wraps an arm around all the executives. “I’ve got just the thing for sports like you,” the PM says in an oily voice.

“We are not ‘sports’,” the executives say. “We just want a basic car; something simple and cheap.”

“That’s what I was saying,” the PM says with a snicker. “Let me show you this beauty. I’ve been saving it for just the right customer.” The PM leads the executives toward a far corner of the lot.

On the way, one of the executives spots a simple economy model and says, “Wait, that’s what we want!”

The PM sneers, “Everyone will laugh at you if you drive that wreck. It’s outdated, antiquated and uses ’80s technology. You’ll be laughing-stocks.”

Scared at making a mistake, they follow the PM to a dark corner of the car lot. The PM pulls an enormous drop cloth off a vehicle, saying, “Here’s what you want!”

The executives peer into the gloom and see an enormous vehicle that will carry too many people. The interior is plush leather, there are 3 stereo systems, 12 speakers, a TV and a wet bar.

The executives protest, “This is too much, too big, too expensive. We want the little car back there!”

The PM starts to talk, waving complex charts and graphs and saying, “This is the latest technology, the best economy and the. . .”

The PM’s pitch mesmerizes and hypnotizes the executives. A few minutes later, they drive off in the big expensive monster.

This project approval approach also triggers a lot of destructive executive behavior:

  • Sponsors review project plans with a fine-toothed comb, searching for unwanted and unneeded features, options and fixtures.
  • They think every number a project manager presents is a lie. Cutting their duration and cost estimates is just getting rid of all the padding.
  • Project managers hide tasks in their projects to give their friends an easy time at work. They believe 33% of all the project tasks fall into this category and they can eliminate them with no consequences.

Project Approval by a Rookie PM: The Eager Puppy Dog

Too many PMs play the eager puppy dog in project approval presentations to stay out of trouble. The approval discussion goes like this:

The sponsor says, “I think this budget looks just a tad fat. You can get it done for 20% less, can’t you?”

The PM nods like an eager puppy and hurries off to slash the budget by 20%. The easiest way to do that is to reduce the work and time in each task by 20%. The PM is able to return with the lower budget and, as a bonus, a shorter duration. This convinces the sponsor that the PM is not a slick shyster and that the project will run like a machine.

When the project approval session ends, both the sponsor and the PM have learned a lesson. The sponsor has learned that the PM’s plans have a lot of fat built in. So next time the cut will be 30%, not just 20%. The lesson the PM has learned is that next time he’ll pad the plan by 25%. Then arbitrary changes won’t cripple the effort before it even starts.

Project Approval by a Rebel Without a Clue

Still other project managers prepare to go into project approval meetings ready for battle. Holding a clenched fist into the air, these rebel PMs tell the team members, “I will fight for our plan! Those nitwits in suits will not change one bit of the brilliant plan we have put together.”

The rebel then heads for the meeting room for the planning session with his boss, his boss’s boss and the executive whose signature is on his paycheck. The discussion goes like this:

The executive asks, “What will it take to finish a month earlier? We have two other competitive initiatives and I would like all three to hit the market at the same time.”

The PM says, “Finishing earlier is impossible! There is no way we can finish any earlier than June 30th. Even that date will require so much overtime that the team members’ family lives will be horribly disrupted. There’s no way. We can’t do it!”

The controller says, “I’d like to see a little less use of consultants and lower fees. Don’t we have internal people who could do some of this work? Maybe they can work with the consultants.”

The rebel PM answers, “Impossible, we need their expertise and I have negotiated their fees down to a fraction of what they charge other companies.”

These executives huddle for moment as the PM waits behind the podium.

Then the most senior executive says, “We approve the project with a completion date of April 30th and a budget that is $25,000 less than your plan. We’re also more than willing to find another PM if you can’t hit those targets.”

The rebel explains the executives’ treachery to the team members and no one learns any project approval lessons.


The key to successful project approval meetings is for PMs to be ready with options and alternatives for finishing earlier, spending less money and using alternative resources. Good project managers are eager to change the plan to fit the executives’ requirements if the scope, budget and duration are feasible.

More on Decision Making Data,

Learn how to use our proven project approval process and create trade-offs between scope, budget and duration in our online courses with your personal instructor. We can also design a customized seminar for your organization and deliver it online or at your site.

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Crisis Project

tomIt doesn’t matter if you are the most experienced PM out there or if you just started your career in this field. There will be times when things don’t go your way and  you have a crisis project. As a matter of fact, if things wouldn’t go wrong from time to time, we would not have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. However, it is also important to remember that no matter what the situation, a good PM always turns to problem analysis and planning first, that’s good crisis management. Project Planning Main Page

Towards the end of last year, I was reminded of the importance of planning during times of crisis. We had just completed a smaller migration project. This project was a rather routine exercise, as we had done similar projects multiple times before. The objective of the project was to move a number of trading transactions from one book to another in our main trading platform. We had a standard plan for this kind of project, everyone had signed-off on the plan, we had a number of test rounds, and finally, we did the migration in our production system. And then came the crisis. During our initial analysis and throughout the implementation phase, we had overlooked a small, but rather important parameter, and as a result we had produced a little mess in our main general ledger. Needless to say that most of our users had a tendency to panic, and the first thought was to move into action immediately, and to just adjust the ledger manually. This would have taken a whole day, and it would have bound numerous resources.

So how do you convince a crowd not to just jump into action, but to first perform an analysCrisis Planningis and a planning session? You remind them about the consequences if the quick fix doesn’t work. The reason we had been in this situation was that we overlooked something before; hence, I reminded them that we don’t want to do the same mistake twice. Obviously, not everyone agreed, but most users understood the importance of analyzing the error and planning the response. So we did our analysis and created a simple “project plan”. This was not an endless document, on the contrary, it was an email, but a structured one. The email had the following sections:

  • Objective including a “business case”, which was the result of the error analysis
  • List of Stakeholders
  • Risks & Constraints
  • Procurement (we concluded that we can fix the problem ourselves)
  • A brief WBS
  • Communications Plan

During this “crisis” planning phase we discovered a very simple method of fixing the error, so the fix was truly “quick” and required a lot less time and resources than the original quick fix. Once the fix was implemented, I produced a lessons learned document and adjusted our standard plan for procedures like this. By following the standard project management during a crisis situation, we had forced ourselves to think first and agree on the way forward. In our case, the analysis part revealed a better solution, but even if we would have had to manually correct the error, we would have brought everyone back into the boat.

So next time something doesn’t work out as planned, remember that no matter what, analysis and planning are still the better response to crisis than a quick fix.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your specialty.

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Project Rescue

In many organizations,  saving failing projects is a regular part of the job of all project managers. Most PMs have had to rescue their own projects from time to time. In fact, one of the traits of superstar PMs is that they can bring their own projects back from the edge of defeat. So how should you do a project rescue? Enterprise Project Management Main Page

Let’s say that toward the end of your project’s planned time and budget your weekly monitoring of results shows a continuing slide toward overruns. You realize that continuing to hope for outstanding performances from a few team members will most likely not let the team catch up. Before you surrender and call the sponsor, there are a few things you can do to avoid failure.

Project Rescue: Continuous MonitoringSaving a failing project

First of all, continuous monitoring of your project’s schedule and cost with estimates to complete (ETC) is an essential part of all effective rescues for turning your project around and managing expectations. Let me give you an example. One of my projects still had about four months in duration but from my control sheets, my personal opinion, and the history of change requests and challenges, I was pretty sure that we would not deliver the entire scope that was originally agree upon. Here is my point. Because I had monitoring tools in place, and because I kept a personal log on where we were in the project, I was able to come to that conclusion a lot earlier than I would have if I would have not had these statistics in place.

Project Rescue: Clarity on Project Scope

Second, as I pointed out in one of my earlier posts, (Project Failure Warning Signs) I had a visual representation of the agreed scope in place and the supporting high-level deliverables. This picture was another component in my planning and forecasting toolbox. Using this picture, I was able to mark those components that were in danger of failing. Combined with my statistics, I was able to draw a picture of what was still possible. Project Failure

You can usually see when things start to turn against you and try to steer against those tendencies. However, in my case, my actions did not result in total victory. At one point, I had to tell my stakeholders that we had a problem at hand. What I would like to encourage you to do is this: when things don’t work out, the sooner you raise your concern the more time you have for implementing workarounds. Furthermore, if you are able to visualize what you have already accomplished and what is feasible by your determined project deadline, you are in a much better position than if you just inform your sponsor via email. In my situation, I was able to point out why we were behind, what we would be able to accomplish and how that would improve the company’s overall situation. I can’t point out this action often enough: visualize your arguments. With a picture of the original scope and the “realistic” scope at hand, I was able to show that even though we would not complete everything, we would complete the most important components.

Project Rescue: Work through Alternatives

In addition, since we raised the red flag early enough, we had enough time to work out alternatives and refocus our development team. My project has not yet finished but I am pretty sure that we will produce a result that will be more than acceptable, even though we didn’t hit a bull’s eye.

Project Rescue: Summary

In conclusion, I encourage you to do the following:

  • Have a clear project scope and supporting high-level deliverables
  • Continuously track your project progress. Visualize what you have already accomplished and what is feasible
  • Don’t just raise a red flag, visualize your arguments. Show what you can do and how this result will still improve your organization’s processes
  • Start working on alternatives and a fallback solution as early as possible. Don’t wait for someone else to point out the problems.

Project Manager Certification

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

Earning a project manager certification is one of the paths into a project management career. It can lead to the upper levels of project, program and portfolio management.

Getting into project management for people with a some experience is easier if you have earned your first project management certification. That certification could be in a specific industry or in a functional specialty. Those certification programs give you basic skills for small projects and build on them by adding advanced techniques in estimating, risk management, planning with executives, tracking and status reporting. The better programs also give you training and practice in making effective presentations, leading meetings and communicating clearly with stakeholders and your team members. The Project Management Institute offers two certifications: the PMP for experienced PMs and the CAPM for beginners.

Specialty certification programs are available in areas such as:
IT Project Manager Certification In addition to basic and advanced project management tools and techniques, these programs give you the skills to use different systems development methodologies, like Agile and Waterfall,and select the correct one for each systems development project. They also focus on how to manage the users’ expectations.

Construction Project Manager Certification In addition to the basic and advanced project management tools and skills, these programs place special emphasis on accurate estimating, building customer/owner relationships and the intricacies of dealing with subcontractorsProject Manager Certification on your project. There’s also a strong emphasis on managing risk and change orders which are critical elements in construction project profitability.

Healthcare Project Manager Certification In addition to the basic and advanced techniques and tools, these certifications focus on dealing with the unique organizational issues in the healthcare environment. They teach you how to work with both the administrative departments and the medical staff of the healthcare institution. You learn how to build effective teams across those functional lines.

Business Project Manager Certification In addition to the basic and advanced project management tools, these programs focus on integrating different functional areas into a high-performance project team. You learn how to build project plans and effective teams that integrate the efforts of information systems, marketing, sales and operations. Each of these areas have a unique perspective on the projects.

Client Project Manager Certification – These certifications not only give you the basic and advanced techniques but also teach you how to sell engagements to clients, manage their expectations, and finish a project on time, making a profit and having a happy client. There is a major focus on handling change orders profitably while maintaining client satisfaction.
These certifications are valuable credibility-builders within your organization and when seeking a new project manager job.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your specialty and start to earn your certification.

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The Project Plan Is Missing

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The company VP flew you across the county to take over a project the describes to you on the phone as “troubled.”  You arrive at the branch facility where the whole team is waiting for you in the Board Room.  The EVP a 300 pounder gives you a big hug and turns to the team and says, “This PM is a winner who’s going to led us to  the finish line by the end of October or die trying.”

You scan the group and see team members smirking and averting the eyes from your glance…You turn back and see the VP picking up his garment bag and briefcase saying, “Well, I’m off to tour those Southeast Asian offices.  See you at Thanksgiving”

You reach for his elbow saying, “But we need to discuss the project scope and the project plan.”

The VP jerks his elbow out of your grip and bolts out the door saying, “The paperwork’s all done, look at those note books.” The EVP points behind you and you look to see seven 4″ thick notebooks. on the table.

As you walk toward the table, a team member says, “You won’t find a plan or a schedule or a scope in those books.  We don’t have a plan.”

You whirl around.  The VP is gone and the corridor is empty with no sign of him.

A team member with a long pony-tall and beard says, “Those books ain’t nothing but our weekly to do lists.  We each get one Sunday night.”

You face the 19 team members in the room and say, “Without a plan we will fail.”

The team members all nod back to you and each other. Pony tail said, “Ohhh, we are.” The team members all laughed agreement.

You say, “To fix this, we need to begin with the scope.  Who started this project, the VP we last saw running down the hall?

Pony tale said, “Nope he takes orders, he doesn’t give them. It was the EVP who gave all the execs the bejebbers about our customer service.  Consumer Reports. The hippo was just the last VP standing when the music stopped. So he’s the king of “World Class Customer Service – WCCS.”

You said, “OK, that’s the name now what are we doing to reach WCCS.”

Ponytail said,”Basically everything. System, procedures, training remodeling, hiring.   An exec wants something done, He just says we need this for WCCS.  The Hippo says, “Add it, just get done by October 30.”

You say, “Any chance we’ll have WCCS by October.”

The team members all thought that was hilarious.  One yelled, “What year?”

The laughing abruptly stopped when you said, “I’ll go see the EVP and get the scope defined by him.”

pony tail said, “That’s suicide man!  He thinks his instructions were clear but all he said was WCCS  by October.”

You answered, “No one ever got fired for asking questions.”

“Oh yes, happens all the time here.”

You walked out the door and looked up the EVP office in the directory by the elevator. It was located on the top floor with a cluster of assistant’s offices.

It has happened to best of us, and it can happen at any moment. All of a sudden, you are in the middle of a project from hell, and you have no plan, literally. Maybe you started of with a sound project plan, but for whatever reason, it became obsolete.Or the plan was never updated, and has become useless. You have lost your compass, people do something for some reason, and it seems that nothing is moving anymore. I have been there. Just recently. Main Project Planning Page

Today, I want to share with you a couple of ideas and lessons learned on how to turn a situation like that around. Let me encourage you: It is hard, but it is possible.

What If You Have No Project Plan – Get the big picture back first

First of all, you need to get the big picture back into focus. What is the actual objective of your project, aka, where do you want to be when the project is done. Make it visual if you can, but make sure that people get back to that point of agreement to the scope.

A small plan is better than no plan

If your original project plan has become totally obsolete, or if you never had an actual plan (don’t be ashamed, we all know how reality sometimes work), you are in dangerous waters. However, if you are in the middle of the project with deadlines approaching, you might not have the time to re-plan your initiative. So, what can you do? Start with a weekly plan. Pick any combination of low hanging fruits or approaching deadlines that directly support the overall objective, and sit together with your team to define what has to be done next week to get there. This will do two things: First, you will identify short term objectives and give people clear instructions on what to do over the next couple of days. Second, you will identify tasks that take longer than a business week, which will be a first contribution in developing a full project plan while implementing the initiative.

Next, schedule a status briefing every week. In this meeting, you’ll follow up on the short term tasks and define the objectives for the next week. This should not be a day long meeting. An hour should be plenty. As you develop more and more tasks, you can start scheduling objectives for the next two weeks and beyond in addition to the short term goals.

The strategy here is to increase the plan horizon while not loosing sight of what has to be done immediately. After a while, you will have produced a new project plan, and you will have gained back control.

Bring back change control

Most likely, your project went down to hell because of scope creep. Oftentimes, this little devil is the root cause for all sorts of problems. Hence, you must implement rigorous change control. Don’t forget: The objective of change control is not to block every change. Change control’s main objective is to keep the initial scope in tact while not ignoring the fact that changes can occur.

If you follow these three tips, you should be able to steer your project out of hell and back into warm waters.