Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are four bars – about eight seconds – into a song during a concert when The Boss yells out, “Trainwreck!”

It’s a song they haven’t played often, perhaps never even played at all. (They do that at times.) They’re close, but something’s off. It’s obvious to Springsteen and probably to the other band members as well – and he wants to fix it before it becomes obvious to the audience.

So he yells out “Trainwreck!” You can hear the smile in his voice; if he weren’t playing in front of 20,000 people, it would be pretty funny. On the other hand, a Springsteen concert consists of 20,000 newly close friends. He yells out “Trainwreck!” and counts the song off again: “One, two, three, four!” The band starts over and the second time around, the song gels. 

Sound like any projects you know?

At least the “Trainwreck!” part does, I’m sure.

But most of the time, it goes like this. You get four bars into the project, and you sense it’s an incipient trainwreck. After 16 bars, the equivalent of the first verse, you’re pretty sure. After the first chorus, the whole band – a/k/a the project team – knows it’s a trainwreck. And by the end of the second verse, you’re pretty sure the clients, your audience, knows too.

Springsteen, called The Boss for various reasons, had three choices. First, he could stop the song as soon as he sensed something was wrong. Second, he could have powered through it, getting each member of the band to watch his hands on the guitar. Third, he could have kept smiling for the audience and hoped the trainwreck would fix itself… while knowing it was just as likely to get worse as each of the other nine musicians took a separate approach to trying to repair what they were hearing.

He took the attitude that they owed the audience their best work, not simply the smoothest show. So he stopped, let the audience in on the fact that the song was heading south, and fixed the problem.

It takes a certain type of courage to admit a mistake before those who will judge you sense something’s wrong.

It take courage, and the recognition that what matters in the end is not your personal I-feel-good/I-feel-bad meter but rather what you deliver to your audience, your customers, your clients.

It’s never easy. Clearly Springsteen has earned a huge reserve of audience respect and trust against which he can draw. Not many project managers are in that situation.

However, project managers build those reserves through communication, honest appraisals, and of course delivery of value. When a trainwreck occurs, you fail to deliver value; worse, your clients may look back over the history of the project and decide that you also failed to communicate the problem and were less than honest about it. They’ll pull out far more from your trust bank than you can afford to replace.

When you see a trainwreck starting to happen, then, what do you do? Do you let it go, hoping it will fix itself? 

I suggest that this is precisely the time to gather the team about you, to call out “Trainwreck!” at least to the project team and figure out, before it gets worse, how to put the project back on track. Caught early, the problem may remain invisible to the client, who’s focused more on the results than the process; you’re going to deliver those results. But even if you share the incipient disaster with clients, they’ll usually be accepting and even grateful if you accompany the call with a description of how you’re fixing the problem, how you’ll keep a small problem from escalating into a full-scale trainwreck.

Springsteen’s The Boss in the world of music. Owning up to embryonic trainwrecks and resolving them rapidly are how you get to be The Boss on your project team.


  1. I think the challenge really comes when money has been invested up front in the project, such as with the deployment of expensive new software. So often the inclination is to sink more money into the project in the hopes of fixing it, whereas what really needs to be done is stop throwing good money after bad and pulling the plug. It sure takes guts to both recognize the problem and pull the plug to allow for a change of direction.

  2. Steven B. Levy

    Every finance person understands the concept of sunk costs. At any point, whatever money is spent is gone. Don’t look back. Consider the cost going forward only. Pressing on might be the right thing. Stopping the carnage might be the right thing. But you cannot determine the right thing by looking at the money and effort you’ve already sunk into it. To paraphrase The Boss, “The foreman said that money’s going, boys, and it ain’t coming back.”