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Ask a PM Elizabeth Harrin: How Do I Cancel a Struggling Project?

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Ask a PM: How Do I Cancel a Struggling Project?

How Do I Cancel a Struggling Project?

Dear Elizabeth: My project is struggling, but no one except me can see it. I don’t have the authority to cancel the project, but I don’t think it’s worth my team working on it. On top of that, my project sponsor has unrealistic expectations, and those demands keep changing. We can’t keep up with new demands, and I know that carrying on is not the right thing for this business. How do I get my sponsor to cancel the project?

There are a lot of things to unpack here! For a start, you are right that you don’t have the authority to cancel the project. That decision needs to come from your project sponsor or project prioritization committee (whatever that process looks like in your company).

However, if you know the project is already off track, I’m sure the rest of your team know that too. That has a damaging effect on morale. Left unmanaged for too long, you’ll start to lose your team members as they go off to work on projects where they feel they are making more of a difference.

Let’s see if we can stop that before it happens.

Explain Why the Project Adds No Value

Have you told anyone that the project isn’t worth continuing? If not, you should make your voice heard straight away.

Actually…not straight away. Do a little bit of planning first so you can be sure your message is heard.

Why are you so sure this project is no longer worth continuing? Typically, projects are closed down prematurely for the following reasons:

  • The project budget has been re-forecasted and will cost more money than the company is prepared to pay.
  • The project’s benefits were miscalculated, and the return on investment is no longer worth the time/budget spent on the project.
  • The project schedule has been re-forecasted, and the work is now going to take longer than the business is prepared to commit.
  • A key senior stakeholder has left, and there is no executive drive to complete the project.
  • The business strategy has changed, and the project is no longer a good fit.

In other words, the project can no longer achieve its original goals.

If you are certain that you cannot deliver the original intent of the business case, then you need to tell your sponsor and your PMO team if you have one. Phrase your concerns in terms that relate back to the original objectives and benefits. Spell out what is required to complete the project and say that’s far more ambitious/expensive/ time-consuming than the business case ever allowed for. Recommend stopping the project because [insert your reasons], but that at a minimum you recommend the business case is updated with the latest position and sent back to whomever for review.

The benefit of updating the business case is that you are pushing the decision to cancel on to someone with more authority than you.

It might be possible to go into “turnaround” mode and save the project, but this will take considerable time, effort, and commitment on behalf of your business. From what you have said, it probably isn’t worth it; however, your exec team might consider saving the project, especially if the project has some strategic significance even though the end result makes no money and adds no apparent value.

Think about What You Can Save

Everything you are working on might seem pointless at the moment, but I doubt that is true. Look at what you can save from your project. Is there something you could finish that goes some way to delivering something useful? Have you already created something that could be used by another team?

For example, you haven’t delivered a full suite of web tools as expected, but you can say you have delivered one. Even if you only did the groundwork for another project to deliver more at another time, you can say you implemented the infrastructure, designed the code framework, and set up the protocols for something.

Take whatever you have done as a team and see how it could be put to use. If you were to wrap up the project, think about what can be saved, passed on to other teams, and reused in the future. Doing this exercise will help your team transition to other work more easily and with higher morale because you’ll be able to say that the time spent on the project was not a total waste.

Have a lessons-learned meeting to discuss what happened and what could be done differently next time. Feed all of the output back into the PMO or other project teams so they don’t make the same mistakes.

Use Your Project Reports

Use the features in your project management software to highlight the issues. If your project is struggling, you should be reporting it as ‘Red’ every month.

When you use tools like LiquidPlanner, you can give your executives a cross-project view of what is going on. Then, they can easily compare the progress and status of your failing project with how other projects are doing. I imagine yours will stand as an outlier!

The best thing about dashboards is that they are dynamically updated. You are providing real-time information to your project stakeholders, and they can see exactly where you are. This all helps with managing expectations.

Manage Expectations

Here comes a hard truth: stakeholders have unrealistic expectations because we as project managers fail to set them at a reasonable level and manage them going forward.

I know you don’t want to be the employee who keeps saying no, but stakeholders often need to hear a dose of reality. The best technique I have to help you manage this is to change how you respond to requests for change. Instead of saying, “No, we can’t do that because…” switch it up. “OK, we can do that, AND it would take more money/time/people/another quality check/input from Legal/whatever.”

You are saying yes in principle to whatever expectation or change is raised. Then, you explain the reality of what doing it that way would mean.

Be totally transparent with reporting. Never hide any delays or challenges. Talk to your sponsor about the issues you are facing as a team and what you are doing about them. They need to know that the project is hard or struggling or facing a difficult time. You can also tell them that you have things in hand (if you do). But, failing to talk to them about the realities of life on the project will mean they assume everything is going perfectly. Let them know what it’s really like—in a professional way—and that should help them start to see things from your point of view.

You can do this through transparency. Make sure they see a copy of your monthly report. Give them access to the project management software tools and dashboards that you produce. Make time to brief them regularly. Have project board meetings or steering group meetings and discuss progress.

Take every opportunity to add in governance and structure that will help manage their expectations.

Be Honest

Finally, be proud of what you have achieved. It’s not comfortable to be leading a piece of work that isn’t going well and that can’t be turned around. Look after your team and look out for them too. Be aware that some projects keep going because the exec sponsor is not prepared to lose face by making the decision to stop the project. Sometimes that’s office politics at play, and you will get caught up in it. Do your best to stay impartial and honest, and present the project how it really is, not how they would like it to be.

I sense a difficult conversation ahead…good luck!

Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management


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