Project Management – Dealing with Doomed Projects

Most of us hate to admit that things aren’t working out as planned. But, if you are in project management long enough, you will get to experience a project cancellation. Sometimes, you can tell early on that a project has the potential to go very wrong. Warning signs include:

  • Lack of ownership at the highest level of the organization
  • Inadequate resources committed at the start of the project
  • Team infighting and poor communication
  • Going over budget with no clear timeline for completion
  • Constant delays in completing schedule milestones
  • Scope and final goal keep changing

Those final 3 issues can usually be avoided with appropriate planning. However, sometimes you inherit a project from a previous PM that’s already halfway down the road to nowhere. In that case, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that you will have to work twice as hard to breathe life back into the project (if that’s even possible). The good news is that you can blame everything that’s gone wrong so far on your predecessor. You can do this without sounding whiny if you offer real solutions to the problems you point out.

What If You Can’t Save a Project?

If obstacles such as high costs, poor design or execution, and changing objectives can’t be overcome or worked around, it may be best to shut things down. This is a time when your project management communication skills need to be at their best. A cancelled project can affect morale throughout your organization. Be sure to solicit input from your full team and other stakeholders before moving forward with shutting down a project. That way, you will all be in agreement and you won’t overlook any possible solutions that could save the project.

Follow Proper Cancellation Protocol

Keeping relationships intact and conserving resources are the two main priorities in the actual cancellation process. If you are performing the project for a client, they should be involved at each step so they don’t feel like it is all out of their control. If you need to cancel orders with vendors, do this as soon as possible so they aren’t devoting production capacity to your project and counting on revenue that’s not going to materialize. When possible, identify ways to reuse project resources for other scheduled or future projects. Be sure to still recognize and reward team members for their contributions – it’s usually not their fault that things went wrong.

Add a Kill Switch in Advance Next Time

One part of project management planning that doesn’t get a lot of attention is setting parameters that will determine when a project should be shut down. This concept should be evaluated during risk management planning. You should be able to identify a specific point when the ROI for a project just isn’t going to be worth it. This could be a dollar amount. Or, it could be a timeline. For example, your organization’s goal might be to bring a certain product or service to market before a competitor. If you fall 12 months behind, the whole project might become moot. Rerouting project resources to something that’s more likely to be a “winner” could be the most strategic choice.

Don’t Get Caught Up in Emotions

Determining the criteria for discontinuing a project ahead of time (and sticking to it) makes it easier to actually pull the trigger if the time comes. Otherwise, you may get caught up in a cycle of justifying more and more expenditures on a project that’s a money pit. Like the song says “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em”. Getting emotionally involved in a project and having your pride hurt when you have to let go can be tough. But the sooner you put a failure behind you, the sooner you can start working on your next success.

One thought on “Project Management – Dealing with Doomed Projects

  1. Cancelling a project can be a lot easier when there is a project steering committee or something similar in place at the organization. Then it’s just a matter of showing the cost vs. benefit analysis to this team and offer to free up your resources to work on more profitable projects that are currently under-resourced.

    In a healthy project environment, killing a bad project should be considered a good thing.

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