The Art of Cancelling a Project

Insights | 23 June 2016

Yes, in some worlds the mere thought of cancelling an ‘in flight’ project somehow becomes akin to admitting failure of the worst kind. Those words ‘project cancelled’ somehow scream ‘failure’ across an organisation.

But it doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be that way.

The Enlightened World

Let’s now consider the ‘enlightened’ world…  I will leave it to you in terms of the project management method used and whether, at the delivery level, agile practices are being applied or not. The enlightened world incorporates all.

In effect, the art of cancelling a project has its foundations when a project is in its early embryotic days: think justification, business case, viability, or simply ‘why?’ If we are clear on the very rationale for the project and for whatever internal or external reason that rationale no longer exists, then why continue?

Change is here to stay

Change of government, CEO, strategic priorities, economic conditions, unforeseen costs or reduced benefits could all adversely impact whether a project is still viable and achievable. In our fast paced world what seemed right 2, 3 or 6 weeks/months ago, at the start of a project, might need to be re-thought in light of current events.

The right decision might be to stop the project and concentrate money and effort on other initiatives. Often a hard call to make if you keep considering what has been spent to date, as opposed to concentrating on the value going forward that the project can achieve, relative to others.

5 tips to gracefully cancelling a project

  1. Know thy business case. Start with a business case and ensure that it is reviewed and revisited throughout the project. The Business Case shouldn’t be seen as a mechanism to purely get initial signoff, then filed away and no longer needed. It needs to be visible at all times.
  1. ‘Best case’, ‘expected’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios. Look at the 3 views in terms of achieving the benefits for your project. If the worst (pessimistic) case became reality, is this acceptable? Acknowledge that anything less, typically, will mean that the project has nothing more to contribute.
  1. Learning. Yes, it sounds clichéd, but it is the learnings we should be focussing on for next time. Those learnings could relate to everything from application of project management to delivery methods to stakeholder engagement.
  1. Cancel sooner than later. If, realistically, the project is not going to achieve value then don’t just continue on the mere whisper of ‘maybe’. Don’t throw more ‘good’ money and resources after ‘bad’. Consider the idea of agile approaches that incorporate ‘fail fast’, or to paraphrase ‘learn fast’.
  1. Don’t just abandon the project. Can we use anything created to date by the project? The agreement may be to stop the project itself because it is no longer justified, but are there any products that could be completed and be useful to other projects or business as usual?

“A positive decision not to proceed is not failure.  However providing insufficient information that prevents…an informed decision is itself a failure as it may lead to a wrong decision”.


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