Jason Fried

April 11, 2023

Rescuing a project in progress

A friend of mine called. He was overwhelmed by a home renovation project that ballooned in size.

What started as a simple kitchen countertop replacement turned into more work in the kitchen, new lighting throughout the house, a master bathroom gut rehab, and new flooring in every room.

It became too much. He felt like he was sinking and he couldn't find a grip to grab to prevent the downward spiral.

This was his first time managing so many things at once, along with living with the mess that's inherent to demolition. Calm was hard to find, and clarity had left the building.

With genuine concern distorting his voice, he said "I'm in a bad spot. What do I do?"

So I asked him to give me a rundown on what was finished, and what was in progress. Essentially, step one is simply taking inventory.

And that's where the problem became clear.

What happened with his project is what happens with many projects, personal or work. Companies, in particular, are perpetually plagued by this problem: Too much unfinished business all at once.

None of the projects in my friend's house were done. Everything was in progress. The kitchen countertops weren't done yet. The backsplash was halfway there. The lights were about 80% done. Some of the floors were ripped up, while more remained to demo. The master bath was half torn apart. And so on. Nothing done, everything started. Guys were jumping around between this and that, trying to make progress on the whole thing without finishing anything.

Now, that might be OK if the initial crew was really large, and each project was being done by separate dedicated teams. But in this case, the contractor had a crew of three doing all the work, and a client piling on more projects as they went.

So here are the clear instructions I gave:

  1. Stop everything.
  2. Take status of everything. Where does each project broadly stand in terms of size, scope, completion, and unknowns.
  3. Pick a smaller project that's almost done, and redirect all resources to finishing that one up before working on anything else. Get something finished. Establish "completion discipline".
  4. Only move on to the next project once the current project is 100% done.
  5. Do not add to the pile. No more new projects.

There are subdivisions in the steps too. You can consider if what's open needs closing, what's doing needs to be done. But those are nuanced decisions that can easily trap you in indecision. The best process in this case is one that's easy to grasp and do: Stop, status, selection, focus, finish, next.

This isn't about calling in reinforcements or adding more resources. This is about stopping, slowing down, eliminating the spread of attention, honing in, and driving to completion.

Two days later, my friend calls me back. "It's night night and day. The kitchen countertops are done, the backsplash in in progress and will be done end of day. Next we're moving to the master bathroom. It all feels under control again."

The house is still a mess. That's the nature of construction. But at least his mind is clear, and the path ahead is obvious to everyone.

Project management isn't just about guiding things down the perfect golden path. It can be about rescuing stuff that's gone off the rails. As much as we'd all like to avoid it, it does us no good to avoid admitting that it's often required. Rescue and repair is part of the natural cycle, and the better you get at it, the more progress you'll ultimately make.


About Jason Fried

Hey! I'm Jason, the Co-Founder and CEO at 37signals, makers of Basecamp and HEY. Subscribe below to follow my thinking on business, design, product development, and whatever else is on my mind. Thanks for visiting, thanks for reading.