I am worried that I have taken on a major project (three months scheduled, tens of thousands of dollars, but it's already late) that I will be unable to complete. I am trying to figure out the best solution.

By way of backstory, the client is lobbying for a particular piece of legislation, and they need strong research to back up their point of view. I accepted the contract to provide the economic analysis that demonstrates that the client's position is correct. But there are two major problems that potentially make the project impossible.

1) In order to make a sufficiently strong case, detailed local economic data is needed. But that data is not readily available, and I do not have the resources or capability to gather that data.

2) The client wants the study done with a particular methodology. Over the course of my research, I have come to strongly suspect that the methodology is not valid and should not be used.

Yes, I know that this mess is largely my fault. I should have not taken on the contract without being confident that I could deliver. It's a complicated story. But what really matters now is what to do about it. I see several options.

1) Make a heroic effort to overcome the data quality issues. I've tried, it's already a month late, and I'm getting pretty desperate. But maybe there is an unturned stone somewhere.

2) Go to the client and frankly explain the problems. I have questioned the methodology in the past and have been told that I am the one who fails to understand, which I think is possible but unlikely.

3) Deliver a report with poor data and a questionable methodology. Yes, I know this happens all the time in public policy, and it's one of the reasons that politics is so dysfunctional. I can't bear the thought of delivering a product I don't believe in.

Has anyone been in a situation like this, and how did you (or wish you did) deal with it?

  • #2, the methodology, is a huge red flag. If I'm reading the situation right, they're probably aware of the flaws in that method and they know it will result in more beneficial outcomes for them. "lies, damned lies, and statistics" as they say. The worst part is that you're always going to be the one they blame. If you tell them now, they could say you didn't say soon enough and that you delayed the project, potentially failing their larger project. If you don't tell them and someone else points the bad methodology out, you'll get blamed for incompetence, malpractice or similar. May 13, 2016 at 12:32

2 Answers 2


I would always go for option 2.

When one undertakes month-long projects involving products or methods not used before in the given context or company, situations like this are bound to happen. So the problem is not that unexpected things happened, but perhaps that you have not managed the client's expectations as well as you could have.

The right course of action depends on whether you have been paid at all by the client. If you have done lots of work and will only be paid on completion, you are basically at their mercy - unless the project is under a strict deadline and they therefore must proceed with you. However, if they already have paid a significant amount, you have a much better platform from which to negotiate.

And negotiate you must. Never just give up or massively under-deliver. Have a serious (and uncomfortable) sit-down with the client and explain that you want to deliver, but there are problems that need to be addressed. Be prepared to take a pay-cut for the project as a whole - but come up with a plan you both believe works and follow up regularly so the project does not derail again.

-- EDIT --

If partial delivery makes sense at all, perhaps that could be a tolerable exit for the client and you. But you will still need to sit down and talk to the client - and you are the one that needs to suggest a new plan from which negotiation will take place.

There is no easy fix - but most new freelancers have been where you are now. This is not a situation unique to you, but a perfectly normal experience that you should solve and learn from.

And it is a potentially great learning experience, not just technically but also the underrated 'softer' skills of client (and expectation) management.

As long as the client is still talking to you, it means they want you to do the job. Regardless of how embarrassed and in-over-your-head you may feel.

Tackle the problem head-on. Most often, these 'confrontations' are nowhere near as unpleasant as the scenarios you are imagining.

  • Thanks a lot for your response. I don't want to do that, but I think you are right that I really need to. Maybe the client had unrealistic expectations of what could be done with the given budget, and I know that I was overconfident and did not realize the challenges of the task.
    – Wave Man
    May 4, 2016 at 8:29
  • Perhaps 'partial delivery' is possible? See edit.
    – morsor
    May 4, 2016 at 8:55
  • If you are all alone, perhaps you could consider getting help? Quite often, just not being alone with a problem leads to a more productive cycle.
    – morsor
    May 4, 2016 at 8:58

Taking on freelance work is risky

Whenever a job is taken on like this, there is some degree of risk taken on by both parties. Who takes the most risk is dependant on the terms of the agreement, but basically:

1) The client takes the risk that you're going to deliver.
2) You take the risk that the client will pay.

These risks are mitigated by very open communication with the client about progress and a payment schedule that is reguler (milesone/weekly).

Don't underestimate yourself

I should have not taken on the contract without being confident that I could deliver.

To some extent you should be confident when taking on a job, but even the most confident and prepared person has unforseen issues. Unless you're a serious veteran in the industry with copious amounts of experience, it's pretty understandable that you're not going to see some issues coming. No one knows the future. Don't underestimate yourself!

Also, the client considered and chose you when taking this job. If you accurately represented your skills and he hired you, it means that he judged you to be good enough to do the job too.

So I wouldn't be quick to put the blame on yourself completely.

Now for what to do:

Offer solutions

I would recommend communicating your concerns to your client (#2) as suggested, however I would also make solution recommendations for the issues too.

Here's a more detailled example adressing your concerns in particular:

Addressing issue #1:

But that data is not readily available, and I do not have the resources or capability to gather that data.

Say exactly that - the data is not readily available - but then also make a recommendation. Is there a place you could get the data? What would that cost or require? Perhaps the client would pay the fee or has connections of some kind. What about other data sources?

If these things would take a long time or a lot or work to find out, perhaps tell them what you know, or do a bit of research, and then ask which avenues he would like you to persue further, if any.

Addressing issue #2:

The client wants the study done with a particular methodology. Over the course of my research, I have come to strongly suspect that the methodology is not valid and should not be used.

I would be careful how I approach this. I would stick to the facts and detail precicely which part isn't adequate or why it wouldn't work. I wouldn't say that the entire thing is wrong or invalid directly. Just mention issues you see. "How is the method going to deal with x?". If this is something the client thought up, they may be attached to it and you need to be sensitive to that. Bring up your concerns in a respectful way and be open to learning more or being wrong.

Here too, make suggestions regarding your concerns. "I'm not sure how the method is going to handle x, what about doing y instead?".

If you can show your concerns about the method and suggest an alternative in a respectful way, then that's the best thing to do.

There is not such thing as too many questions

I have questioned the methodology in the past and have been told that I am the one who fails to understand.

I have certainly been there before.

There are two possibilities here. Either (1) the method is flawed or (2) it isn't and you misunderstand it. Asking a questiong about the potential flaw ("How will the method handle x?") will facilitate establishing which case this is.

Keep asking questions about the method until the above is resolved. Do not worry about looking stupid because you've asked (what feels like) the same question for the nth time. If you and the client have differing ideas on what this method is, deal with that ASAP.

Since everyone thinks differently, it's inevitable that there are going to be some differences in communication styles. I think in pictures, but one of my clients prefers communicating with speech. It took a while for us to figure out a way of communicating complex ideas in an efficient way. It's not that either of us are stupid (and I doubt either you or your client are too), just that people communicate very differently and it's necessary to work around that.

You're on the same side

I know that it's easy to see the client as the person who's paying and there's no vested interest there, but you both want this to work. It becomes a lot easier when you think about the client as someone who you're in a mutual relationship with, both working toward the goal of making this project suceed.

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