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When to kill (and when to recover) a failed project

John Edwards | Sept. 15, 2017
Admitting project failure is never easy, but sometimes the kill decision turns out to be the best decision.

The warning signs that indicate a project is in trouble are classic and well known. "The problem is, we tend to discount or ignore these early warning signs—like we do the onset of a cold," Zucker says. A project that's falling behind schedule and continually failing to reach planned milestones is almost certainly in deep distress. "Digging in, you will often find that requirements have not been clearly defined or [the] technology is experiencing high defect rates," he explains.

Coakley notes that falling behind schedule frequently derails traditional waterfall projects. "One of the reasons the Agile approach is so popular now is that organizations feel they can avoid those types of problems via the daily scrum, where issues are brought up to the project team on a daily basis and plans to mitigate those issues are implemented swiftly," he says.

In many cases, a compromised schedule launches the project into an unrecoverable death spiral. "I've never seen a project that was significantly behind [schedule] ever get back on track, but partial success can be met by scaling back the original scope or moving in a different direction than was originally planned," Gfesser says. "Both avenues of which are enabled by Agile methodologies."


Is project recovery possible? 5 key questions

1. Have there been any internal or external changes that could be hurting the project?

Recent business, market or technology developments may be adversely affecting the project's framework and goals. The plan may need to be redesigned to accommodate these changes.

2. Should we reduce our goals to a more realistic level?

Initial overly optimistic projections may have to be scaled back to reflect real world conditions.

3. Is our current project team working together as effectively as possible?

Team dissention may be pulling the project down. Now is the time to either resolve these problems or to shake up the team by adding and/or losing members.

4. Why are we falling behind schedule and is there anything we can do about it?

A period of introspection and revised planning can help get a lagging project back on track.

5. Who can we call in to help us?

A project outsider might be able to detect problems that team members are too involved to see.


When and how to kill a failed project

Projects can occasionally be rescued by seeking an outside perspective provided by a knowledgeable individual with no personal stake in the project's success or failure. "Some failing projects create massive amounts of acrimony between departments," Coakley says. "Somebody who can be deemed as relatively impartial may be able to offer some fresh perspectives that might be able to identify some issues the in-house players are blind to."


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