Pull the Plug on Projects

A day or two ago I posted some comments on improving project management. Looking for ways to improve the project management process is an admirable thing to do. But sometimes, it really just makes sense to cancel a project and move on.

The main reason behind pulling the plug on a project is to divert the project resources to something else. The problem is that most companies don't have a process for shutting down a project. There's nothing in place to review the merits of a project once it has begun and nothing to describe the process of getting the management approval to stop work. This situation can be remedied by creating a list of termination conditions before getting too far in to the project work. Of course, what goes on to this list is going to vary depending on the project.

One of the easier measures to use in determining whether a project is worth continuing is cost. If the estimated cost of a project balloons such that it can't possibly achieve a positive ROI, then there's probably no reason to continue. Another situation worth considering is the loss of project sponsor interest. This can be a sign that the strategic benefits originally associated with the project have, for one reason or another, passed. The only thing keeping the project going is momentum which is hardly a good reason. Yet another example is the loss of critical expertise. Although rare, it is possible to lose enough knowledge on smaller projects such that it no longer makes sense to attempt completion.

It's important to acknowledge that a canceled project doesn't equate to a failed project. Many of the reasons, such as external market forces, are entirely out of the control of the project team so it hardly makes sense to hold them accountable. On the other hand, a project that isn't canceled in time and is instead allowed to waste resources for a long time before it is finally canceled should be considered a failure. This is an important distinction because it will encourage the project team to examine their projects with a critical eye.

Throughout all of this it isn't the project manager's responsibility to cancel the project. In fact, in most companies the project manager doesn't even have the authority to cancel a project. Instead, the project manager is responsible for providing factual and objective information to management along with a recommendation. And of course, the project manager is then tasked with following the project closing procedures or continuing the project as determined by the project team.

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