How to Escape From A Failing Project

You must have seen these projects at work: the ones where the sponsor has disappeared, there’s a morale problem in the team and the scope, timescale and budget are so wildly different from what you were expecting that there is zero chance that the work will complete successfully.

These are the projects that are failing. And when you are managing one, it’s not a great place to be.

Project managers in this situation have two choices: jump in the lifeboat and paddle away as fast as you can or grab a bucket and start bailing. You’ll have to use your judgement to decide which one feels right to you: try to save the project or cut your losses and walk away? To make the right choice relies on understanding why the project is failing in the first place, so let’s look at that first.

Why Projects Fail

Whole books have been written about why projects fail, so here’s a quick synopsis of the major reasons:

·              Unrealistic expectations

·              Lack of funding and/or resources

·              Poor communication and/or not getting the right people involved

·              Lack of senior leadership support.

And you can no doubt think of others. This article on why projects fail looks at this topic in more detail.

So, you’ve had a look at why your project is failing and you think the right thing to do is to give it another chance. It’s good to know that you’ve tried everything before you recommend that a project is closed down. Here are some things to try.

Review the Methodology you Are Using

Best practices are available to use for a reason. Standard project management approaches like the PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition, PRINCE2 and others are popular and effective because they work.

If your project has been struggling to get by on best endeavours, without formal processes or guidance, think about implementing some structure. Get a standard project management tool that everyone can use.

You don’t need a Project Management Office to do this: you do need a willingness to take a little time to adapt processes and methods to fit your organization and then work through the cultural change required to get everyone on board.

It’s not a quick solution, and it might not be the sticky plaster that your current project needs, but it will improve success rates going forward for future work.

Train Your Team

Methodology alone won’t help you if no one knows how to use it. Invest in training your project team on how to use the tools and techniques, and how to work through the processes. Again, this isn’t a quick solution, but it goes hand in hand with creating a project management culture that is engineered for success.

On your current project, think about how you could best inject some much-needed support for your struggling colleagues. What is the area of biggest challenge? What would help you deliver the next step most effectively?

Get a lunch and learn session together, or carve out some time in your next team meeting to do a mini training on whatever topic that is.

You don’t have to be an expert in it yourself. You just have to be willing to lead the discussion and facilitate a conversation around the topic.

Work in a Large Organization

You’re in the middle of a failing project: I get that you can’t influence the size of your company right now. It probably wasn’t much of a factor when you took the job. However, a (rather old, but still relevant) study by PM Solutions points to the fact that the size of your company has a significant impact on whether your project is salvageable.

You are more likely to be able to save a failing project if you work in a large company.

There are a number of reasons for this:

·              Large companies have more people which means you have access to more human resources for your team. If your project is failing due to lack of resource, a large company is more likely to be able to source extra staff to help during critical times.

·              Larger companies have bigger budgets. Typically that means there is more money to shift around between projects and more contingency or management reserves available. If the project is truly important and worth saving, a larger company is more likely to be able to find the funds to help it carry on.

·              Larger companies are more likely to have higher levels of project management maturity and possibly one or more PMOs. These teams can provide support to a failing project, in terms of extra resources for support and project administration, through to strategic support, resource allocation and liaison with key stakeholders. They can help with project audits which could uncover areas of weakness in the project management governance, so you know where to focus to help resolve the project’s issues. They can also help with prioritization of the portfolio overall, which could be essential if you need to prove your project is a priority and deserves the investment required to save it.

Break It Down

Finally, think about how you can break down your project into smaller chunks. Smaller projects are easier to manage – that won’t come as a surprise. If you can split your project into smaller pieces of work, you’ll find it easier to manage the scope and requirements.

Your team will start to see incremental wins which will also boost morale. You’ll be able to show your stakeholders that you can deliver something of value.

Agile methodologies lend themselves well to incremental delivery but you can also split up projects in more traditional delivery environments and complete them in Phases. It takes a bit of time to work out how to break down your project, but if you can achieve that, it is definitely worth doing and will show you how much can be saved from this project.

What If That Won’t Work?

Some projects aren’t recoverable. Sometimes the work has gone too far wrong, or the strategic direction of the project has changed, or your key supporter has left… whatever the reason, some projects simply don’t get through to the end.

If you think that this is the situation for your project, the best thing to do is to tell your manage or project sponsor as soon as possible. Advise them that whatever you do you are not going to get a successful or desirable outcome. There isn’t any point in wasting company resources further. You may as well take the difficult decision now to shut the project down and reallocate the resources to other work.

That’s a better decision for the team, because they get to work on something that is fulfilling and that they can see the value in. it’s better for the company because they aren’t tying up people working on something that won’t achieve the expected results.

And it’s better for you because it shows you as the kind of project manager who can have the difficult conversations with management.

It’s common for projects to stop, go on hold, or be closed down. Don’t take it personally, and don’t dwell on what might have been.

Do what you can to save a failing project, and when that isn’t successful, close the project down in an appropriate way and get to work on something that you know will add some value to your organization.

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