Project Management Institute

How to Fail Successfully

Project Managers Can Hone Leadership Chops Even When Closing down a Doomed Project

By Marat Oyvetsky, PMP

We all love success stories. Most project case studies offer a happy ending after detailing obstacles and the solution that emerged. But we all know some projects fail—indeed, failure can become inevitable or prudent given the circumstances. The organization might decide to shift direction and pull the plug on a project, or funding could dry up, or a technology is a bad fit for the business. In situations like these, project managers need to know how to fail successfully: They have a responsibility to the organization and all stakeholders involved.


When projects fail, the big challenge project managers face is keeping the team focused to properly close the initiative. When a project is forced to end, team members might begin looking for their next assignment or opportunity before things are really over. It falls to project managers to lead the team through the proper actions to ensure that, should the organization decide to resume the project, there is sufficient information available to not restart from scratch. These actions include:



Document the failure. How and why did it happen? Create a record for future stakeholders and project teams. Whether or not the project is reopened, this record has value.

Notify all stakeholders. Ensure that everyone is informed of the reasons behind the closure and the actions being taken to secure all information.

Finalize budgetary information. Record how much money was spent and how much remains to be repurposed elsewhere.

Complete lessons learned. Just because a project fails doesn't mean nothing can be learned from it. Make sure you gather team members’ thoughts before they move on.

Safeguard technical information. This is vital to ensure the business's intellectual property is safeguarded. Be sure to set permissions so that only appropriate stakeholders have access.

Given today's cybersecurity threat environment, this last point is critical. Archiving and protecting a project's technical documentation and design data should be standard practice across all industries. Regardless of whether the company ever completes the project and takes a product or service to market, valuable proprietary data may be in the mix. The project leader must ensure all security best practices are followed.


When a project is active, project managers are focused on the project vision and goals, and execution. When terminating a project, the focus shifts to new priorities, including safeguarding project artifacts and knowledge. Even during the final chapter of a failed project, leadership matters—and project managers can leave their mark. PM

img Marat Oyvetsky, PMP, is program director at Trace3, San Diego, California, USA.
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