We’ve all been there. A project deadline is looming, half the project members are nowhere to be found, and you’re in a copy room printing the latest report for a meeting that seems designed to waste time rather than capitalize on it.

In fact, you’re not even sure what this meeting is about. Or what its objectives are. You’re not even certain everyone will attend, and those who do will probably devolve to checking their phones under the table.

How did you get here? 

According to the Project Management Institute, one in four of strategic initiatives fail, and only 60 percent of projects meet their original goals. But project failure, like plane crashes, are rarely the result of one error. Instead, they are the result of a series of consecutive errors, all innocuous in their own right, but trumpets to approaching disaster.

Here are some of the signs your task management workflow may be headed for the graveyard:


  1. Lack of defined goals and tasks

Yes, you attended the project meeting. The director was very enthusiastic about this new strategic initiative. They went over all the details of what it will do for the company when finished— what the bottom line impact will be, how they can spin it in a marketing campaign. You exit the meeting and spend the next three weeks leaning over your coworker’s cubicle wall asking them what they’re working on and trying to figure out if you’re ahead or behind schedule.

How to resolve this: don’t leave your success up to the hands of others. Ask the project leader to lay out a clear business process that includes how you’ll measure progress, what the steps to major milestones are, and what the final project result should look like. Find out what you are— and aren’t— in charge of. Take notes, don’t lose the notes, and set a timeline for each of your tasks.

  1. Meetings with no clear objectives 

There’s another meeting this afternoon. You don’t have the calendar invite yet, it’s only been setup just now. Of course, there’s no clear agenda on the invite. This is just another status check; be prepared to hastily describe what you’re working on while everyone dead eyes the shared screen.

How to resolve this: if you’re the one arranging the meeting, cancel it until you have a clear agenda in place. If you’re invited to the meeting, ask for an agenda. If there is none, ask the meeting organizer to make one or offer to make an outline yourself. Use the agenda to keep the meeting on time and on target so everyone gets out without a thousand-yard-stare.

  1. Relying on team members to read their emails

Online databases? Cloud platforms? Please, you’re a master of whipping open an Outlook message and sharing the latest data via email. You’ve even converted from your spreadsheet into neat little graphs. Oh, except you forgot to include that person in IT. And three of your project members are working remote and you’re not sure they’re checking their emails. Hopefully they’ll read everything before the next meeting…

How to resolve this: if you’re committed to email, lay down some rules. Ask remote team members to check in at specific times so you know the information is being received. Create an email checklist of who needs to be in emails and make sure they’re included. If you’re not committed to email, consider consolidating your data on a shared platform so you never have to send another spreadsheet again.

  1. Badly organized data

Your latest files have names like Final, FinalFINAL, thelastone, or similar variations. You open File Explorer and spend the next 90 seconds trying to remember which file you saved the latest data in. When you finally get to the appropriate file, you open the wrong spreadsheet, the one you started using a couple months ago but abandoned because things “got busy.” Where did you put the latest report?

How to resolve this: don’t rely on time stamps to remind you which file is most recent. Take the extra five seconds to give your files clear names so you know what information it has without opening it. For old spreadsheets, set aside time to either consolidate or organize old/outdated data sheets. Much better to refresh your data files than spend the next six months opening and closing the wrong sheets.

  1. Uncontrolled scope creep

You’re really on top of this task. You’ve figured out what it needs, settled in with your headphones, and gotten your groove. It’s going to look great. Except when you finish it you realize it didn’t get you any closer to completing the original project goal. Now you’re trying to figure out how much time you have left to get back on track while wondering how you even got onto the other task to begin with.

How to resolve this: ask why you’re doing this task and how it will impact the bottom line before you start working on it. It’s easy to get into a task without considering the larger picture, but the lack of foresight will hurt your project goals as well as your own success. Scope creep often occurs in response to unforeseen problems that come up as part of working on a project; sometimes these problems can be quickly handled without extra planning, but oftentimes they are new problems that need to be addressed and incorporated into the larger timeline and budget of the project. When in doubt about what kind of problem it is, check in with your team.  

  1. Shifting priorities in your organization

Your director read a great article from VOGUE over the weekend and was inspired to change the project’s direction. Forget the battle strategy you made last week for your project— here’s the new game plan. You’ll need to completely reorganize your old spreadsheet or start over and create a new one. Now that you’ve lost a week of time and the final deadline hasn’t changed, you need to take shortcuts. How about naming this new spreadsheet copy new_spreadsheet.xlsx? Better get on that Outlook message to share it with the rest of the team…

How to resolve this: see if you can figure out what’s causing your director to continually change their priorities. If possible, work with him to address the underlying reasons for the sudden shifts and anticipate future changes. In the meantime, take charge of your success. Get your director to sign off on new priorities as they come and document your progress on them. Rinse and repeat as priorities change. If things come to a head, you’ll have a beautiful record showing your hard efforts in the face of constant change.


If your project is experiencing these symptoms, it might be time to step back and re-evaluate your workflow management process. Don’t be afraid to spend some time organizing yourself, your data, and your plan of action. 

Curious what other pitfalls you might be missing? Learn more about why projects fail and how you can save yours from an untimely death with our ebook. 

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