Sixteen (and a half) ways to work through post-project grief.

Image from “Business Reply” by Packard Jennings.

It’s probably happened to you. Sometimes, a project just… goes away. It could be for any number of reasons: The funding dries up. Strategic priorities shift after a merger takes place, or a new department leader is hired. Sales didn’t hit their goals for the quarter. Creative differences between the Widget division and the director of Wicket resources couldn’t be resolved. The boss woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. The creative was off-target. The target was off target. There was no target! The strategy was flawed. The strategy was perfect, but the execution was… On, and on, and on.

The truth is, there are an infinite number of possibilities as to why a creative project doesn’t get off the ground. Regardless of the cause however, the outcome is more or less the same: no project. So, what do you do? Cry. Cry, a lot.

Seriously though, what do you do when a project that you care about (presumably that you’ve invested time in, and furthermore that probably represents revenue for you or your business), does not come to fruition? Besides working your way through the seven stages of grief, here are a few thoughts, gathered from creative people, the internet, and from a lifetime of mistakes, hard-earned wins, and experience. Enjoy.

Remember, it’s not You. Often, when a project that we’ve worked on for any period of time goes down in flames, it’s natural to ask ourselves, “could we have done things differently?” And the answer to that is probably yes — but we’ll get to that in a minute. Sometimes though, it really is not you. There are often forces at work that really are beyond our control, and usually, beyond our awareness — or at least, beyond our visibility. Today, we can’t always predict how the landscape of the marketplace is going to shape up even on a day-by-day basis, as tremendous volatility roils the business terrain. Institutions, whole industries are in flux (not even touching on the broader political landscape) and our ability to predict how those organizations will react is limited. There are a few things we can safely say about navigating this volatility though, especially when dealing with large institutions:

  • Politics will Always come into Play. No matter who you’re dealing with at whatever level of the organization, they will almost certainly be beset by institutional politics, and as a result, you will too (and if you’re an outside vendor, independent contractor, consultant, or just have a job pretty much anywhere, you’re probably dealing with politics on your end as well). And, to make matters worse (or, more of a ‘challenge’ to put a positive spin on it), in times of volatility, the tenor of institutional politics will almost certainly be bad, not good.
  • Power Matters. Though I did not mean for this post to become a treatise on dealing with institutions, there are a few points here that bear consideration. When dealing with institutions, the POWER of your constituents matters a great deal. And, beyond relative power and influence of the people you’re dealing with, the number of those people who are bought-in also matters. It’s often not enough to have one powerful person bought-in to a project; in an organization of any significant size, you will almost certainly need buy-in from constituents at multiple levels of the institution, which means at least two or more powerful people climbing on board to champion the project. Eventually, it’s also almost certain that you will need support from a majority of the constituents concerned to get an approval. And again, in times of volatility — not an easy task for anyone. But a good rule of thumb is to get as many people of power IN THE CHAIN OF COMMAND on your side as possible. Toe-stepping, or nose-shape-bending can be the death-knell of many an otherwise-worthy project. Be warned.

A lesson from the book of Job can be instructive here — sometimes, things don’t work out, not because you’ve done things wrong, but even when you’re doing them right. Still, you have to keep the faith, and keep going. You can’t give up.

Ok, Sometimes, it actually is You. But it’s still not “You.” Ok, remember how before I said it wasn’t you, but then I said well, maybe it was, but that we’d get to that? Well, here we are getting to that. So, sometimes, when things go down— due to politics, or volatility, or whatever— “you” can absolutely be a factor in the thing not happening. “But, how?” You may ask? Well here’s how. And I’ll try to put this in a positive way so nobody feels bad.

  • Ask more Questions. Sometimes when a project doesn’t happen, we may not have asked enough questions, or the right questions, in the right way. And we may have done that because we didn’t know which questions to ask. That’s ok! Rule of thumb — better to ask more questions and be bold in those questions, than not to ask enough questions. We may uncover some of the features of the situation that we didn’t perceive at first, and reveal details that could force us to revise our thinking on the project as a whole. Ask, ask, ask.
  • Listen (A LOT). If we’re gonna ask questions, we gotta learn to listen to the answers — no, I mean REALLY listen to the answers. Listen carefully to every word that a client or potential client says, and pay careful attention to the words they DON’T use. Often, if you listen carefully enough, your client may be telling you that this project is DOA even if it sounds like it’s not. There’s a lot of “fronting” in business. Don’t be fooled.
  • Research (the Crap out of Everything). Yeah, it’s boring and time consuming. But getting as much information as you possibly can about what you’re being asked to do and who you’re dealing with can only help you. You can never do enough research, and while it can be a time-consuming rabbit hole to get sucked down, do as much of it as you can stomach — and you may find answers to some of the questions that you have, including the reasons why a project may or may not happen.
  • Trust your Gut. If you get off the phone with a client, and you’re left with the impression that in order for this project to work, you’ll need to find a two-headed man, a submarine and a flying unicorn, that should probably tip you off that something’s not right. Basically, if you get the vibe that the project doesn’t make sense, or you’re missing a really big important piece of information (like buy-in from a major constituent), don’t ignore that feeling. That’s a real red-flag that you should pay attention to. Put it this way — once red-flags go up, projects don’t usually improve further down the line.
  • Say No. This one is a big one, and, yes, really quite difficult for most anyone to do. But it is an option that is always available to you, at almost any time. If you get the sense that a project isn’t a fit for you, or is turning in a direction that doesn’t make sense or you don’t like, or is somehow missing a major support pillar or other feature that you know you’ll need to make the project a success, speak up and say “No.” Sometimes passing on a project if it’s wrong for us is the wisest decision we can make, and when we don’t do it even though we know we should, and the project goes down, we have only ourselves to thank because we’ve ceded our most valuable asset — our executive decision making — to someone else, who will wind up making the choice for us. No one wants to be seen as a ‘quitter’ or a ‘refuse-nik,’ someone who won’t ‘play ball,’ but sometimes our most powerful ally is our ability to stand firm and say “no.”
  • You Weren’t Right for It. This is an old casting adage from the world of acting for film, TV and theater — but it applies to the client-vendor relationship as well. Sometimes you just aren’t the right fit for a project. Your characteristics and whatever the project needs just aren’t compatible. And that discovery can reveal itself at almost any point in a project’s life span. Viggo Mortensen wasn’t cast as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings until three days after filming began (with a different actor playing the lead). Sometimes we just aren’t the right fit for a thing, and that isn’t apparent at first. That being said…

Ok, ok. This time, it really is You. There. I said it. Sometimes, the answer as to why a thing doesn’t happen is “us.” Something we did, or said, or didn’t say. Sometimes it IS about who we are. Hopefully though, if we’ve conducted ourselves responsibly and with integrity, those instances will be few and far between. If we haven’t… Well, then. But if we have, and things still don’t work out, it usually comes down to one simple, single factor in the equation, that when you boil it down, is almost always the culprit in how a cookie crumbles: we simply didn’t have enough power. Most of the time, the thing about us that determines whether things do or do not happen with a creative project is simply our relative power in the situation. If we have more, things usually work out. If we don’t… it’s anyone’s guess. What constitutes a power imbalance and how can you adjust for that? That’s a conversation for another post. But, remember:

  • Don’t Keep All Your Eggs in One Basket. Ok, this is an easy point to make, but still a hard one to live by. Don’t give any one thing — any one person, job, client, project, industry or anything — too much relative power in your life. Gotta keep things in balance. Like most financial planners are fond of saying “Diversify!” The more you can spread the ‘risk’ quotient of your life around, the less of a hit you’ll take emotionally, spiritually, and financially, when one of those projects doesn’t go through. It’s hard to live by because nobody’s perfect, and sometimes we have to take risks — like depending on our one job, or that one project. But if we can structure our lives to keep moving forward regardless of any one person’s choice (or even a bunch of people’s choices), than we’ll be that much better off over the long run.
  • Protect Yourself. We may not always have this luxury, but it is wise when beginning an engagement with a client to put some sort of agreement in place, and if you can, include in the contract an element or clause that guarantees you some form of up-front payment for time spent. Sometimes projects “die” before a contract is signed (hello there, “pitch” process — I’m looking at YOU!), and bam, you’ve just been initiated into the world of “free consulting.” But sometimes they die after everything has been inked, which gives you at least an opportunity to soften the blow by negotiating compensation for the time you do spend working. Any time you can make that happen, do it.
  • Keep your Tools Sharp. When things don’t work out and we wind up in a situation that we weren’t expecting, that may be a moment to reflect on our trajectory, take stock of our assets, and get some perspective. Some people watch favorite movies to keep them inspired; other people play with their kids, or their dog, or take up a creative personal project they’d been neglecting. Whatever it is, take the moment to get in touch with your surroundings, remind yourself of who you are, and use it to focus on the skills, talents and abilities that you do have. Sometimes we need to take a breath to let things come “in” to ourselves, even when we feel like we have to hustle all the time and “make it happen.”
  • Talk About It (Get Support). And when we do hit obstacles we may have the impulse to bury those feelings or hide our disappointment. We may feel ashamed, or feel like failures. It’s natural to feel those feelings. That’s the very human part of us, physicalizing our emotional and psychological experiences. But we don’t have to keep it all to ourselves. Mourning is a part of being human, and it’s okay to mourn creative work when it doesn’t happen. It may even be necessary for us to move on. Every human being has experienced disappointment (and for the one person out there who hasn’t — you will). It’s one of the things that makes us human. Sharing our burdens with others lightens the load for all of us. And you may be surprised what you hear in return.
  • Turn it into Art. Not to put too fine a point on it here at the end of a blog post about projects dying, but certainly one lesson to draw is to convert the energy of disappointment into something creative, whether that’s a piece of writing, an art project, music, code, or whatever, and share it (or not). Again, rather than let a frustrating experience drag us down, redirect that energy into something that fuels you. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll come away with a new perspective, a new angle on the experience, and you may have something concrete to point to that externalizes the energy you’ve absorbed, and perhaps — icing on the cake here — helps someone else down the road.

Whatever you do, don’t give up.

Matt Landfield is the co-founder of TimeTravlr Creative, a creative consultancy and production studio in Brooklyn, NY.