Cancelling a Failing Project – Key Steps

As project and program managers, we all want our projects to succeed. It is part in parcel with the very foundation of how we operate. To a certain degree, a project manager almost takes a maternal role when it comes to the project they are responsible for and its eventual success or failure. And in many cases, the project’s success or failure is often linked (by the project manager) to their own personal successes and failures.

With that being said, it is clear that we all, as project managers, want to see our projects succeed. The feeling of elation and personal success is certainly pleasing and euphoric for the project manager upon successful completion and closure of their project.

Yet despite our best efforts, a project is not always destined to succeed. Various factors can combine to make a project hit the skids. From the standpoint of the project manager, it is important to itemize the various factors that signal a project may be in danger of failure as well as having an action strategy in place to deal with the project termination should it occur.

Specific Signs of Looming Project Failure

Signs that a project is in trouble come in a variety of forms. But there is a distinction from the issues that arise for a viable project that could derail it versus the problems that indicate a more fundamental problem with the project as a whole. A few key things to watch out for that may signify fundamental project problems are:

  1. Frequent Schedule Changes – Minor changes are normal, but should not occur that frequently. If the schedule is changing daily, that is a problem.
  2. Project Sponsor is a No Show – If the project sponsor never seems to return your calls or emails and appears nowhere to be found at critical junctures for the project, that could signify a lack of commitment to the project.
  3. The Status Report Never Changes – If the weekly status report appears to be in perpetual purgatory and always shows the same content, that signifies no traction and could be an indicator that the project is now being abandoned.
  4. Resources are Being Changed – If the resources dedicated to the project are always in flux, that is never a good sign and shows that the project is not being given high priority. Addtionally, if those resources are changed without the project manager being notified, that is not a good sign.
  5. Project Members Never Show Up for Staff Meetings – If the individuals supposedly working on the project never bother to show up to meetings, that is a sure-fire indicator that they have been given other work of higher priority.
  6. Requirements Document is AWOL – If the original business requirements document appears to be AWOL or non-existant, that is a good indicator that the project is not given much notice.

While all of the above indicators are not, in an of themselves, an indicator that all is lost, they should definately be sending up the alarm bells.

Ending a Failing Project… Gracefully

Who ultimately makes the decision to end a failing project can vary, but in the end, it is up to the project manager to wind down the project and take the necessary steps to close it. For thoroughness, the following steps should be taken when putting the final ‘End of Life’ on a dying project:

  1. Engage with PMO (if exists) – A discussion with the company’s central PMO authority is a good idea to determine if any procedures or policies have to be followed for ending a project.
  2. Inform Project Sponsor and Stakeholders – This is best accomplished in a face-to-face meeting. If that is not feasible, it should be performed via some ‘live’ mechanism, such as a combined teleconference/Web-Ex type meeting. Just cancelling a project via email is not kosher.
  3. Inform the Project Team – Even if the project team members have been no-shows, they still need to be informed of the project’s closure.
  4. Itemize the Budget – If there was budget allocated to the project, it will need to be made available back into the ‘pool’ for future usage. Any over-runs or cost expenditures will also need to be itemized.
  5. Alert Clients (if necessary) – There may have been some individuals expecting the project to come to fruition. If a potential customer list exists, those individuals need to be notified accordingly.
  6. Document the Project Closure – As part of the ‘closing’ process, the project’s success or failure needs to be documented. There may be a case down the road where the project might be re-energized. So having all information current at project closure is imperative.

A project, whether it succeeds or not, still needs to follow the guidelines as dictated by the PMBOK guide, and effective closure of the project is no exception. As a project manager, despite any emotions to the contrary, due diligence is warranted in cases of project failure as well as project success.