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How to Save a Failing Project and When to Walk Away From One

When considering the fate of a project, one should think back to pre-school and the glitter and glue art projects.   You envision a nine point snowflake with starburst sparkles at each point.   Next, you take out your glue to create your design.   You end up with a shape that is somewhere between a stop sign and a Muppet.   When you pour out your glitter, you realize that you used way too much glue.   Your partner sneezes as you try desperately to pick out individual pieces of glitter in a last ditch effort to save your design.   With glitter in your hair and tears in your eyes you carry your project to the garbage bin.   This is the first, and far from the last, time that you will learn that some projects that began with the best of intentions sometimes need to be dropped.

Satish Kumar realizes that failed projects happen more times in the corporate world than most project managers would like to acknowledge.   He notes in his article that, although some scope changes are healthy and necessary, constant change may be an indication of disorder.   In that same vein, constant changing of staff is an issue because there is a risk of ideas not flowing smoothly from person to person like a mangled game of Telephone.   If your cash in burning up, someone needs to take a serious look at the future of your project.

Unlike your glitter and glue project, some projects can indeed be saved even when they appear to be failing.   The trick is to know what to save and what to trash.   Revisiting the scope, reviewing the staffing situation, and practicing cost control are three ways Kumar gives to turn around a failing project.

However, if there is simply no saving your project, there are constructive ways to walk away.   Kumar suggests that justifying the cause for cutting the project is crucial:

Pulling the plug on a project that is underway is often not an easy thing to do.   There usually are a lot of personal and political forces at play.   More often than not, people will waste money (and time) in order to justify costs they've already spent.   The key here is to maintain objectivity and avoid the Sunk Cost Fallacy.   Meet with your project sponsor and review the costs-benefits of the project and be prepared to justify why the project should be cancelled or stopped.

The bottom line here is, if you need to throw out your project for the greater good, do so.   There is always more glue, glitter, and paper in the craft cabinet.

About Anne Grybowski

Anne is a former staff writer for CAI's Accelerating IT Success, with a degree in Media Studies from Penn State University.

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