Inconceivable! 4 signs your project’s in big trouble

Ian Lurie

In every internet marketing project, there comes a time when the team members look at each other and say some version of “We. Are. F—ked.” And the project manager, like our friend Vizzini above, will say some version of “inconceivable!”

I’ve been on both sides of that exchange. You probably have, too.

Here are a few signs of a coming inconceivable apocalypse.

1: Your project has more people than deliverables.

You’re building a 10-page web site for your company. But the CEO, the COO, the CFO, the office decorating committee, three consultants, the CEO’s mom (who once created a flier for the CEO’s burgeoning lawn care business) and a few passersby are all on the Web Site Committee.

What the boss is thinking: If 10 people are good, 50 must be better! After all, that means I have more good ideas to work with.

The harsh reality: 50 good ideas is no better than 10 good ideas, unless someone’s going to pick the winner. And the larger the group, the harder that becomes.

Possible outcomes: Total failure. Riots. Backchannel finger-pointing. Many meetings to ‘get everyone on the same page’. Or all of the above.

An alternative: Build a core team of essential players. Report to the Everyone Committee once a month. Prepare to run a lot of interference. That’s life in charge, I’m afraid.

2: You have a star player

The star player is a jack-of-all-trades. They can do anything.

What the boss is thinking: Sure, they started out in system administration, but the star player kicks butt at design, and they just rock at SEO. This is someone who can Get Things Done.

The harsh reality: The star player has never completed a project. The failures were never their fault—there’s always an explanation—but they’re like a bipedal omen of doom. Once they show up, you’re screwed. The real problem, of course, is that they can’t say no. The star player may be a good person, and they genuinely want everyone to succeed. But they’ve been pulled into so many different types of work they can’t even remember their own job title.

Possible outcomes: Star player has a nervous breakdown. Team gets together and locks him in a car until project is over (don’t worry, they feed him). He takes over three different jobs, project falls behind by weeks, then months, and everyone else wanders off, feeling superfluous. Manager is fired and star player replaces him. Or all of the above, in some random order.

An alternative: Bring in the star player. Tell her she rocks, ’cause she does. Get her working on one thing. Plan for her working on one thing. Show her how much fun it is to focus on one thing. If the poop really hits the fan, then ask her to switch tasks for a specified amount of time.

3: You have a black hole

The black hole is the guy who constantly points out all the reasons everything’s going to fail. They don’t have a plan for success, but they sure as hell know what not to do.

Before you start snickering: I am not a black hole. I plan for success, and hope a meteor won’t destroy the earth before I get a chance to finish.

What the boss is thinking: The black hole is someone who’s seen everything. They know how and why projects fail. They can be the canary in the coal mine, warning everyone if something’s gone wrong.

The harsh reality: You do need someone with experience to point out potential issues. But they should move work forward, too. The black hole just sucks every idea, and all air, out of the project.

Possible outcomes: Mass suicide. Mass murder. Black hole resigns, sure they’re all dooommmmmeeed. The 3rd is your best hope.

4: There are more meetings than days of the week

There’s a check-in meeting on Monday morning. A check-in on the check-in meeting over Monday lunch. Then a check-out meeting on Monday afternoon. Tuesday starts with the task assignment meeting, then moves into a 2-hour status check, where no one’s done anything because of all the meetings, so they end up having to have a crisis meeting right after. Oh, and did I mention? All team members are in every meeting.

What the boss is thinking: She really doesn’t like you. That, or she’s freaking out, because on the last project she ran, the whole team went off to work. A few weeks later, they returned (24 hours before the deadline) to report they’d accomplished nothing. This time, she’s going to stay involved, and maintain accountability.

The harsh reality: Unless your project is to have meetings, not much will get done.

Possible outcomes: Lots of meetings. Vastly improved team doodling skills. Invention of 10 new games of Bingo. A soul-sucking feeling of hopelessness.

An alternative: You’re better off setting up small meetings of essential team members. Keep them down to 15-30 minutes, maximum. The boss can be in each meeting, keep tabs on what’s going on, and still let the team get their work done.

What to do?

If you’re the boss, do everything you can to avoid 1 and 4. Plan for and mitigate 2 and 3. And be ready for the 99 other things you can’t prepare for.

If you’re a worker bee, you probably know if you’re a black hole or a star player. I know I am. Cough. Just repeat to yourself, every day, “I will not be the — [insert title here]”.

Okey dokey. Now off to work!

Other stuff

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

Start call to action

See how Portent can help you own your piece of the web.

End call to action


  1. Hi Ian,
    Another problem is when the Founder wants to be the CEO.
    These are very different roles/skills and you sometimes need to separate them.
    for example…
    I feel Yahoo would have done much better if Jerry Yang stepped aside sooner.
    But… when Mike Dell stepped down, Dell lost direction.
    Wonder what will happen to Apple when Stevie goes….

  2. I know what you mean, its very easy to fall into such traps, where you are doing more talking, Skype, meetings chats, and than find out that you don’t have enough time to execute the project, as you have spent most of the time talking and discussing things which could have been done much simpler, by maybe sending an email.
    Best is to keep meetings and conversations short and to the point, and give enough time so that you understand the full project.

  3. Love it! … and then there all the flipping lists! In all different shapes, sizes, formats, version controls. Some on memory sticks, some in the cloud, some on Mary’s email that only they can access and most meetings are spent talking about what list is being referred to with any incomplete actions having been actioned on the other list. hehe

  4. You are absolutely right. You must have the skills of one and use them to perfection. Meetings are very important to keep every one on track and to keep the business running smoothly. Thinking back, I have had meetings only one a month but now it seems like we have a meeting every day on some short but important project. I love the article. Taught me alot. Good job.

Comments are closed.

Close search overlay