One Simple Question That Keeps Projects from Going off the Rails

It’s unusual for projects to come in on target, on time, and on budget. Ask one simple question that gets teams solving problems before they happen.

12 reasons good projects go bad:

  1. Unrealistic planning.
  2. Poorly defined goals and milestones.
  3. Disorganized leaders.
  4. Lack of motivation.
  5. Frantic schedules.
  6. Communication breakdowns. Misunderstanding slows progress. Crossed wires create conflict.
  7. Ineffective resource allocation.
  8. Failure to adapt to evolving market demands that change project requirements.
  9. Software bugs.
  10. Hardware failures.
  11. Economic upheaval.
  12. Legal issues.
Keeping projects on track is first about people, then about circumstances. Image of a train stuck in sand.

One simple question that keeps projects on track:

“Imagine this project is over and it’s a catastrophic failure. What did we fail to do that contributed to the failure?”

Before you mess with the language of this question, consider why it’s worded this way.

Set the stage:

Get teams in problem-solving mode by asking about imagined failure. It’s normal to worry about projects. It means you care. Tap into problem-solving power before problems happen.

Soft landing:

Declare intent so you won’t give offense.

Team members might take offense when you say, “Imagine this project is a catastrophic failure.” They could think you don’t trust them. Or something worse.

First say, “I’m asking this question because I want to tap into your problem-solving skills before problems happen.” Now say, “Imagine this project is over and it’s a catastrophic failure. What did we fail to do that contributed to the failure?”

The power of questions is their ability to invite response. Image of red poppies.

Be specific:

“Fail to do,” is designed to extract specific actions. If you ask, “What went wrong?” the conversation will go off the rails. They’ll think of things outside their control. Maybe they’ll bring up a lousy economy.


Include a time factor for long-term projects. When projects are months from completion, say, “What did we fail to do this month….” Or “This quarter.” Short timelines require timely action.

What makes this question useful?

How would you modify the language of this question?

A Premortem: Reverse Positive Thinking for Success – Leadership Freak

How to Get Projects Back on Track Fast – Leadership Freak

Keeping on Track (