When it’s time to "Let It Go": How to Successfully Kill a Failing Project

When it’s time to "Let It Go": How to Successfully Kill a Failing Project

A few years back, before project management got a whole lot better, project failure rate was as high as 70%. Can you imagine? Even with all the advances, projects still fail and we have to have ways to make their death and funeral as quick and painless as possible. Because even projects that don’t succeed can impact business. Reasons for failure can be anything from scope creep, poor team collaboration, lack of resources or lack of stakeholder involvement. Whatever the reason, here are some tips for how to determine a project must end and how to end it and not make it a disaster.

The Project Is Not Delivering Value Anymore

If you have a project that has run aground due to cost issues but you’re determined to see it through, what are your options? You can try and make it worth the increased price, i.e. make it more valuable. Or you can cut corners, i.e. make it less valuable to stay within budget. You cannot force value into a project that is already suffering from cost issues and you certainly won’t have a valuable project if you are making sacrifices to keep the price down. It’s time to take a hard look at making sure it is value you are delivering when completing projects.

The Project is Costing Way Too Much

It’s not news that cost is one of the biggest headaches project managers face. Completing a project on budget is close to a miracle. If a project isn’t estimated correctly from the outset or vendors increase their prices (like we have seen in the last year) or you find yourself short-staffed and need to hire additional resources (also like we have seen in the last year) your budget will take a hit.

Maybe your organization is large enough to absorb some amount of budget overrun without causing too much problem. But if you are majorly blowing your budget, you need to seriously think about abandoning it. The financial damage is only going to increase and the impact will be significant. You can try and save it by cutting any expenses that seem extraneous but you need to be prepared to kill the project.

Prioritize More Important Projects that Need Your Attention

In the business climate these days it's not unusual for project managers to be stretched pretty thin. This is why prioritizing your projects is essential. Look at them based on what is their overall impact to the business and the bottom line. How much value do they add to the organization. Choosing to allocate resources to the projects that will do the most to achieve the goals of the company is choosing success. There is nothing wrong with shuttering projects that won’t do as good a job at contributing to reaching goals.

Changing Business Plan or Strategy

Sometimes you start a project that makes excellent business sense at the time. And then time passes and business objectives change and the project no longer fits in with the overall business plan or needs. Now what? There is definitely a strong innate sense to finish what was started. Why go through all that work not to see it through? There are some good reasons. If the company business plan is making a shift, the project manager’s focus needs to shift along with it. Change is inevitable and it doesn’t mean the work that was done wasn’t important, it just no longer serves the higher purpose. It is OK to let the project go in order to focus on the changing business strategy and how to be most useful.

Poor Management and Monitoring

Success and failure of a project starts and ends at the top. Yes there are a few external factors that can derail a project but as a project manager it is your responsibility to control it from start to finish. Any instance of poor project handling can torpedo the entire project. As much or worse than being over budget, a project that’s poorly managed or monitored will end up in the gutter. And while there are many tools to assist a project manager in tracking aspects of a project, it is ultimately up to them to know what’s going on everywhere, all the time. If it gets to the point where there’s such a mess that there’s no way to fix it, then it’s better to scrap the project and start over. It will take much more time and energy to fix what’s broken.

So now that we’ve gone through the “why”, let’s discuss the “how”. You can’t just send out an email on a Friday that let’s your team know it’s over. Consideration must be given to the work that has been done and the resources that are in use. Let’s explore some best practices.

Establish Processes

Since we all know it’s going to happen, it only makes sense that a set of processes or at least guidelines are set up for decision-making to shut-down projects. Without some sort of benchmark, project managers and more importantly team members are left feeling they must trudge on through a failed project to the bitter end. Having a process let’s team members and resources be freed up to work on more useful projects which will give everyone a renewed sense of purpose.

Be Able to Recognize Signs of Failure

No one wants to give up without a fight. No one wants to be labeled a quitter. Everyone wants to have only accomplished projects on their resumes. So the instinct is to continue with a project long after the problems have piled up. And when there are several parties collaborating on the outcome, there is failure to go around. Make sure that there are regular status updates that everyone is being read in on and the results are actually being reviewed. Don’t ignore the warning signs like delays, budget issues and errors. If these pile up, disaster may not be able to be avoided.

Contact All Stakeholders and Sponsors

Make sure that the project charter and all aspects of the project plan are clear and the business purpose is impactful. Make sure that the stakeholder is in fact authorized to approve the project. Make sure the funding for the project is secure and how it could be reallocated if necessary. Then have a cancellation plan which includes consultation with legal and HR to ensure that shuttering the project doesn’t impact relationships with employees and contractors, vendors, customers or other partners. Tell stakeholders and sponsors privately. When all of these items have been handled, announce the termination of the project. Then do all asset reallocation that is necessary.

Reallocate Resources

When it comes to this part of the process. Look for any similar projects currently underway or near completion. If you have employees in other locations, they may be working on similar projects. Diminished resources cause projects to fail. Consolidating resources can save time, money and energy.

Gather Lessons Learned

This is probably the most valuable part of killing a project. Interview team members to get their opinions. Salvage reusable materials including components, design documents, test data and other information. Examine all project-related data. Document all lessons learned which led to the demise of the project such as not conducting enough research or poor budgeting. Make sure you have documented what is necessary to keep any mistakes from happening again.