What if the Project Can't be Saved?

Sometimes you do everything in your power and the project still can't be saved.  It may not even have anything to do with anything you or your team did or failed to do right.  Projects can go south for reasons outside of our control. You can follow every PM standard, practice and guideline.  You can produce status reports and project plans that should be placed on some sort of ‘wall of fame’ somewhere.  But no matter what you do, the project is doomed to fail – or at least not truly succeed.  This can be, of course, for any one of a number of reasons.  Some common ones are:

  • Funding pulled
  • Key staff lost to a more critical project
  • Customer direction changed mid-stream due to their own internal issues or changes
  • Your own management decided not to pursue this work any further (rare, but it does happen)
  • And many, many more…

Whatever the reason, you’re left with the question, “what do we do now?”  If you’re a consultant, your paychecks stop and you scurry to find new work.  If you’re an employee, then you’re probably looking for a replacement assignment.  But it’s not just you – there’s the delivery team and the customer to think about also.  What do we do for all three?  Here are my thoughts…

Project Manager.  What you do now depends on where you came from.  If you’re a consultant, you have to find new work.  It’s advisable to maintain connections with the customer that was lost – especially if you’re on good terms with them.  You helped them this far and if the reason for the termination is on their side and not yours, then they will most likely continue to have a good taste in their mouth about your efforts.

If you’re an employee, then you dive headfirst into the rest of your projects and you let your management know that you’re looking for a replacement project.  I think it’s advisable to maintain contact with the customer – unless your management has requested that you not.  I maintained contact for over a year with a customer from a failed project – and the fault was almost entirely ours (thankfully not personally mine, though…it was one of those I had jumped on to try to save). At the end of that year, I was able to bring that customer back to us for the next phase after they had repeatedly threatened to seek a different vendor.

Delivery Team.  Your project was canceled for whatever reason and you’ve thought about what you need to do next.  What about your team members?  If you’re a consultant, you probably part company with contact information in hand and try to maintain communications for networking purposes.

A majority of the time, it will be fellow employees you’re dealing with and you’ll almost certainly be working with them again – and may already be sharing another project with some of them.  At a minimum, there needs to be a closing meeting to discuss the ending of the project, the reasons the project ended and go over issues from the project and document some lessons learned.  We all give lip service to lessons learned, but the information that comes out of these brainstorming sessions can be extremely valuable both for this immediate team and for others in your organization.  Discuss why the project ended and try to determine if there were any possible courses of action that could have been taken earlier in the project to avoid this outcome.

Customer.  Once the project is lost, the customer may be lost for good, too.  In that one case I cited earlier, it wasn’t lost even though there were huge technical and financial disagreements months earlier.

As I said, if you’re a consultant, maintaining contact with a customer you were on good terms with is important – it may lead to future engagements.  If you’re an employee, use your own judgment and possibly consult your management because maintaining contact likely depends on how and why the project ended.  If you’re still on good terms with the customer, engaging them in your closure meeting and lessons learned session with your delivery team is highly advisable as some really good information can come out of this and help you with other projects and customers down the road.

Summary / call for input

A project ending abruptly is bad – but it’s not the end of the world…especially if we learn valuable information (and lessons) from it.  That which does not kill us makes us stronger.  And failed projects that don’t get us fired help us to become better project managers, team members, and customer managers.

What about our readers?  What are your thoughts on this?  What are your first thoughts of action when this is happening?  How do we react and move on?  Please share and discuss.


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