Anatomy of a failed project
BY SHEILINA SOMANI, FAPM, PMP, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
Sometimes there comes a point when you know you have to kill a project. You followed best practices, implemented solid processes and employed consistent communication—but you're still forced to hit the stop button.
I was recently involved in shutting down a project within the program I'm running. The experience was both uncomfortable and disappointing. The sponsor bought into the project with a clear commitment—contributing time, prompt decision-making and, of course, funding. The specifications were clearly defined, completion criteria specified and agreed upon, and a budget and timeframe secured.
As the project commenced, though, a significant change request was implemented due to external economic factors. The sponsor accepted the additional 20 percent time delay and 10 percent cost increase.
Although the project team was clearly experienced and hard-working, the initial results were not good. A review was undertaken during this first phase, and areas for improvement were discussed, agreed to and documented.
Toward the end of phase one, though, quality was deteriorating and the schedule was slipping further. At this point, I requested a pause for a formal review of work done so far, achievement of targets and quality of output delivered. The conclusion was that despite our best efforts, the project was not delivering to an acceptable standard.
Some closures can be anticipated. Effective risk management reveals indicators and allows expectations to be managed for a healthy, swift termination. However, there are times when the absence of indicators creates a false sense of security, an expectation of success.
Project managers must remain vigilant and on the lookout for symptoms of impending project failure:
- Constantly changing scope
- Poorly defined requirements
- Changes in resources (both material and personnel)
- Stress and tension caused by anticipated change
Looking for an objective assessment, I decided to call in a third-party subject matter expert (SME). But first, I discussed the matter with the project manager to help with the decision-making and selection process.
The SME, main contractor, project manager and I concluded that the best option was to work together to complete phase one and then close the project. This enabled the project to meet some criteria, which led to a cleaner handover to a new team to attempt phase two.
SOFTENING THE BLOW
It's rare that I've had to kill a project. When it does happen, adequate documentation and communication must take place throughout the process.
The sponsor, initially disheartened, was protected from unnecessary stress and frustration through honest, consistent communication—both of progress and concerns. Bad news is never easy to deliver, but it's much more palatable when done in “digestible amounts” rather than as an overwhelming surprise.
The end-users were protected from the effects of the unsuccessful project by the team carefully managing their expectations via regular progress reports, quality concerns and intended processes for resolution.
Project managers should also make sure that lessons learned are communicated along with recommendations for similar projects in the future. Hold people accountable for their tasks and commitment to excellence.
It takes a lot of courage to stop a project. Good relations between the project and program manager made my situation a team effort free of accusations and defensive posturing. Of course, everyone wanted the project brought to its proper conclusion. But the ongoing trust, integrity and confidence shared from this interaction was more than we could have gained in a year of successful project delivery. PM
Sheilina Somani, FAPM, PMP, is the owner of U.K.-based Positively Project Management, which provides consulting, mentoring and development services.
PM NETWORK NOVEMBER 2010 WWW.PMI.ORG