Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

What do I do in a failing project


I was reading a report from Keith Ellis from IAG Consulting that only one in three software development projects in the US actually makes it to completion. Larger the organisation, higher the chance of cancellation. Regardless of the reasons behind the cancellations, it means as a project manager, time will come when you will have to deal with a project that is headed south. What do you do when you find yourself in such a scenario?

In my experience, the first casualty of any project going in the wrong direction is documentation. This is the most fatal mistake of all if done with project management artefacts. Once things start going downhill, you as the project manager is the one under the gun, regardless of reasons. You are the easiest scapegoat.

The only way to protect yourself is to ensure that you capture all decisions made in the project. The odds are, many of them will have been made by people under or over you, for operational and strategic decision. While you can influence decisions made by people under you, you may or may not have decisions coming from above you. Get into the habit of building a dashboard early in the project and update each week with actuals. Use a standard repeatable technique to analyse the health of your project. I use the Earned Value Analysis technique. Use something that you trust.

If you are in a project where resources are contested, clearly outline the resources that you require to deliver within the tolerances afforded to you in terms of time, scope, budget, risk, quality etc. If resources are pulled from your project, clearly articulate the affect of that in delivery terms. Measure that to time delayed or cost added. I find if you can equate it to a dollar value, it clearly gets the attention of management.

Run a strong and vigilant risk and issue register. Make it visible and encourage your team to actively participate in it. In my view lack of focus in this area is usually a cause of many projects sinking. While you cannot foresee every risk, a good project culture will ensure your team will pick up more than you think.

Remember, cancelling the project is not always a failure. There can be many reasons why the project may no longer be desirable now. Things may have changed from when the project started. If you have done your job well, you can be really successful by ensuring a project does not continue to meander along, wasting time and money when there is no possibility of achieving the benefits it was conceived to achieve.

Big obvious cock-ups will claim its victims in spectacular fashion. Those are highly visible and unlikely to take your scalp. It is the slow bleeds that you need to prevent. No one remembers those and when a scapegoat is required, you’ll be wearing the cross-hair.

4 responses to “What do I do in a failing project

  1. Pingback: How does organisational growth impact project delivery? « Project Management in Practice

  2. Peter Westerhof April 8, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    It should be called ‘How to prevent a failing project’

  3. Pingback: How do I estimate based on risk? | Project Management in Practice

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