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If you are going to fail, fail fast

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First guest blog in the 'top tip for project management series' by Elizabeth Harrin, author of Social Media for Project Managers and the blog A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

The average large company, running around 150 projects at any one time, loses £13 million a year by not stopping projects that are failing. It’s not always management’s responsibility to cancel projects: if you’re working on something that you know isn’t going to deliver the proposed benefits, you need to speak up. Quickly.

Keith Richards, one of the UK’s Agile experts, said, “If you are going to fail, fail fast.” Mistakes happen. Things go wrong. It is how you deal with it that counts. A project manager who makes mistakes and owns up to them early will find people willing to help to get things back on track.These projects are late at the beginning but tend to make up the time later.

A project manager who hides mistakes, crossing her fingers until the project is nearing its due date, will find that people will – for the most part – rally round to help get things back on track. But this will be because there is now little choice about pressing on. These projects are “on track” until near the end but then have been shown to take, overall, twice as long. So, own up to your mistakes, and put things right as soon as you can.
If you can’t, remember that the project manager's role is partly to direct the work and partly to provide an objective position on how the work is done – and that means suggesting stopping everything and starting again, or even not starting again, if necessary. Recommending that a project is closed can be a very positive action.

Late projects or closed projects can feel like professional failure. One way to deal with things that feel like they are going wrong at work is to have something outside of work that you care about, that helps put things in perspective. Carry out Murray’s Deathbed Test (named after a colleague from a previous job who had a very sensible outlook on life). Think forward to when you are old and dying. How will you complete the sentence, “I wish I had spent more time...”? I very much doubt the answer will be “completing my issue logs” or “updating my Gantt chart”. Work hard, be professional, but keep things in perspective.

Keeping things in perspective will stop you being afraid of challenging senior people.  Not all projects are started from the basis of a competent idea. If you know the project is going to fail, explain why it should be stopped: then it’s up to your sponsor to take the final decision to stop it.


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  1. Martin Samphire
    Martin Samphire 16 April 2012, 11:45 AM

    I agree with your sentiments. The issue of "professional failure" for PMs needs to be dealt with as, I contend, stopping a project early is a sign of "professional success" not failure - particularly if measured at the portfolio level rather than at individual project level. The APM Portfolio Management SIG has done a lot of thinking / work around this topic of success and failure - and us all needing to be a bit more granular when describing success and failure - see the Opinion Piece in the March 2012 issue of Project Magazine - ..The Black Death.......on page 10. Whilst I agree that the PM has a role to play in identifying and elevating issues on failing projects, this relies on the PM being "consciously competent" and emotionally resilient particularly if it is one of the sponsors pet projects.  My experience is that the major reasons for projects failing are less about the PM making mistakes and more about the sponsor / organisational executive competence (for governance of project management). I contend that neither the sponsor or the organisation executive / board can rely on PM competence / behaviour that flags failing projects.  The executive cannot abdicate their responsibility for ensuring that competent sponsors are appointed, they understand the alignment and business case for projects, they review the portfolio regularly against the latest business context and they set the appropriate culture such that issues can be raised without fear.

  2. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 13 April 2012, 12:36 PM

    The key governance issues are firstly accepting some project will fail. If there is a probability of success there is a corresponding probability of failure, 80% probability of success = 20% (or 1 in 5) projects likely to fail. This is discussed in a really good post at: The second is contingent on the first establishing really effective surveillance systems that focus on emerging problems and opportunities, whilst there is still time to do something! This is the focus of our White Paper: