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When to give up on a project

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Not all projects will be completed successfully. Some may be partial successes but others may be complete failures. If all of the projects you work on are successful, primarily ones internal to your company, then you are probably not working on enough projects (nor are you working in a company that takes risks).

First and foremost, we must understand that the only real failures are projects from which nothing is learned. In one company, more than 80% of the projects related to research and development were considered failures by senior management. But the director of the Project Management Office (PMO) looked at it differently. She stated that even though these projects were considered failures by management, many of them created intellectual property that was used on other projects and led to commercially successful products. Therefore, we must be careful in how we define failure.

Second, knowing when to say "I give up!" seems to be more important to the project manager. The earlier the decision is made to cancel a project, the quicker the resources can be assigned to other projects that have a greater opportunity for value creation and commercial success.

Waiting until the next gate review meeting to make a decision is not a viable way to provide governance to projects. Senior management must create templates or checklists that seek out the critical parameters that indicate project cancellation should be considered. The decision to cancel a project is not easy, especially if the project's objectives can no longer be met but the project is creating intellectual property that can be used in the future (which could lead to successful spin-offs from the original project).

Establishing criteria for cancelling a project may include factors such as:

  • The project's objectives cannot be met and continuation of the project will not necessarily create intellectual property
  • The project's assumptions have changed and it may not be the “right” project to work on
  • The project can be completed but it will not create any sustainable value for the company
  • Market conditions have changed such that the ROI or sales expectations will not be met, or the competition is expected to introduce a more advanced product
  • The final product may become obsolete earlier than expected, or the company may not be able to provide customer support for the product to meet customer expectations
  • Costs have risen on the project and the schedule has slipped significantly
  • There are technical difficulties beyond the capabilities of company personnel
  • The problem is too complex for the company to manage
  • Key resources have left the project or resigned from the company
  • The company is experiencing a significant cash flow problem
  • There has been a significant change in the company's interest and strategy

It is the responsibility of senior management to make sure that project audits are conducted in a timely manner. Project managers must be willing to bring forth any bad news that may lead to project termination. Likewise, senior management must create a culture where people are not punished for bringing forth bad news.


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  1. Lora Shorman
    Lora Shorman 10 January 2015, 12:00 PM

    that's right i give up when i got no choice on the project, even i use Maximum Shred for best thinking memory and body power....

  2. Dasha Golubeva
    Dasha Golubeva 19 February 2014, 12:35 PM

    "She stated that even though these projects were considered failures by management, many of them created intellectual property that was used on other projects and led to commercially successful products." -- I love this, and it's backed by a lot of great examples in tech history. As we were doing some research to debunk the myth of "fatal project failure" (right in line with what you are saying here), one of our favorite examples of success borne out of failure was Apple's iPhone design based upon their failed PDA from 1993. "Second, knowing when to say "I give up!" seems to be more important to the project manager." -- To add to that, experts say that when you fail, you should call the reason by name. Don't just cancel a project, make sure you learn a lesson from the canceled project so that you never have to face the same problem again. Thanks for the great article; giving up on a project doesn't have to be fatal, but it's good to know when to make take those steps.  If you want to see the rest of our myth-busting PM facts, here's a link:

  3. Richard Renshaw
    Richard Renshaw 30 November 2013, 06:53 AM

    @ Dr Kerzner, I wanted to pick up on;we must be careful in how we define failure.Similarly defining success in the first instance could be beneficial for all concerned. Consider too the context that a project is being undertaken and the PM Organizational maturity. Taking a leap forward to 2020 and considering APM's Vision therein potentially if due consideration was given toward a project management methodology at the outset one option is to include a protocol that if the business case for the project changes then respecting that the project needs to create value that the mechanics of ceasing a project align to pre-agreed success criteria.Such leads onward, as one option for creation of a scenario in year 2021 that the business case has changed, lessons learned have been documented and the project stopped. From such pilot then may lead onward to potentially another Blog related to Road Maps to attain the Vision of APM taking cognizance that in some situations due to a changed business case a project needs to stop.Potentially one option is to consider that during the initiation of the project that within the success factors and success criterion, KPI's be generated to highlight that that if the business case changes then success be defined that in accord with pre-agreed KPI's the project was stopped in compliance with project governance. What would then be considered a failure, as one option is that we waited a year and then stopped the project.The following in relation to PM maturity Dr Kerzner could also be considered during the Start-up of a project to mitigate failure.Dr. Kerzners 16 Points to ProjectManagement Maturity1. Adopt a project management methodology and use it consistently.2. Implement a philosophy that drives the company toward projectmanagement maturity and communicate it to everyone.3. Commit to developing effective plans at the beginning of each project.4. Minimize scope changes by committing to realistic objectives.5. Recognize that cost and schedule management are inseparable.6. Select the right person as the project manager.7. Provide executives with project sponsor information, not projectmanagement information.8. Strengthen involvement and support of line management.9. Focus on deliverables rather than resources.10. Cultivate effective communication, cooperation, and trust to achieverapid project management maturity.11. Share recognition for project success with the entire project team andline management.12. Eliminate nonproductive meetings.13. Focus on identifying and solving problems early, quickly, and costeffectively.14. Measure progress periodically.15. Use project management software as a toolnot as a substitute foreffective planning or interpersonal skills.16. Institute an all-employee training program with periodic updates based upon documented lessons learned.  

  4. Emily Hamilton
    Emily Hamilton 13 November 2013, 03:24 PM

    I find this is a source of great conflict between the PMO and the "deliverers" of projects, where the PMO takes this dispassionate, objective view of "success", whilst those engaged in delivery - particularly in my industry - health - are very emotionally attached to the original vision of the project, no matter how unnatainable that vision may now be.This is a useful prompt to finding the "good" from a poor situation - I like the use of the IP concept, which adds some intrinsic value to what would otherwise be quantified as simply "lessons learned" (whether or not anyone learned any lessons!)Thanks for this nicely encapsulated piece.

  5. Benedict Pinches
    Benedict Pinches 13 November 2013, 01:46 PM

    Interesting semantics terms around proposed stopping of bad projects. To begin with Harold talks about 'giving up' and later talks about 'cancelling'. My own view is that we as practitioners need to get much tougher about terminating bad projects and freeing up resources, rather than propping them up.

  6. Martin Arcari
    Martin Arcari 05 November 2013, 03:11 PM

    I think that one thing to consider, particularly regarding the termination of smaller, lower budget projects, is the impact that termination could have on morale. I have worked on change projects in a merger environment where the very fact of the project's existence brought 2 heritage cultures together under a common goal. Although it became clear that the project's stated objectives would only be (at best) partially met, the decision was taken to see the project through due to the benefits for team unity. The corporate sponsor, project executive & PM all felt that under these circumstances, the benefits outweighed the cost of continuing the project despite the knowledge that it would only realise a small proportion of its originally stated benefits.

  7. Adrian Pyne
    Adrian Pyne 01 November 2013, 11:48 AM

    A thoughtful and useful piece. Good also to see Dr Kerzner recognising that culture plays a role (last sentence). Building on this I would observe, as very many have done before me, that projects are often hard to stop, even when the are going, or have even gone, bad.Somehow some projects take on a life of their own and are difficult to kill. The reasons for this may include:- bad news not spoken to the Executive level as Dr Kerzner rightly infers- there is a strong Sponsor, driving for successful outcomes, but in truth heading for the rocks- there is no cultural support for cancelling a project (which may arise from the first two factors)- there is immaturity in governance processes, OR, in their execution. I have seen organisations that have the capability to kill a project, e..g. using criteria such as suggested by Dr Kerzner, and yet do not know how to do so, or simply fear to do so.These are behavioural, not process oriented factors.The conclusion then, is that even good governance process is not enough, the culture also needs to be supportive of enabling good projects to succeed, AND to be able to let go of bad projects.

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