No one seeks out to be part of a failing project.  No project manager in their right mind says, “I hope this project tanks.”  It’s just not part of our human nature.  That said there are just times when a project is beyond saving or two sides simply aren’t going to get to a point of mutual agreement on the outstanding issues.  It may become clear at that point that moving forward is in no one’s best interest.  How we close down such a project is probably something to be discussed in another article.  I will make note of that and address that soon.  But right now I’d like to look at some of the signs that can be indicators that the project may need to be laid to rest.  Or at least halted until more information is available, better requirements are defined, a business structure has changed making the project goals clearer, or personnel who are getting in the way of progress are turned over.

I’m interested in hearing from our readers on reasons that projects may need to be shelved.  For me, I’ve identified what I feel are the four main reasons I’ve witnessed either in my projects or in my colleagues' projects.  These four are:

Scope creep is continuous

I’m not talking here about small disagreements in where the line in the sand needs to be drawn in terms of project scope.  There are rare cases where the kickoff meeting happens and you move into planning with the customer and what you thought was a ‘defined’ project has turned into a mess.  The customer expected ‘x’ and you planned to deliver ‘y.’  Sometimes it’s an issue that started during the sales process and wasn’t glaringly obvious until the skilled resources who truly understand the solution are sitting down with the customer and planning out the implementation.  This is where the tire meets the road – often really for the first time – and the customer says, “wait, that’s not what I was told by Sales.”  Or, “I was told I could have this for free and now you’re telling me that’s a 200-hour effort?”  Sometimes these situations can be handled through negotiation and sometimes they can’t.  When they can’t and it’s become obvious that you’re at a stalemate, it’s likely time to call the project off or place it on hold until clear and decisive plans can be made.

Client is disappointed

The project funding runs dry

When funding runs dry, the project manager has a serious problem.  And without any documentation to support otherwise, the blame is usually going to fall to him.  What can cause this situation?  Well, if it’s just simply oversight or laziness on the side of the project manager, then that’s not grounds to cancel or shelve the project – but it certainly is grounds to remove the project manager for lack of performance.  What I’m really referring to for the purpose of this article is more than just lack of budget oversight.  My reference here is to situations where increasing demands are placed on individual project team members to perform outside of the planned tasks for the project.  Perhaps it’s customer demands, perhaps it’s a need for many project personnel to go onsite for an extended period of time to work out project details, or perhaps it’s a customer’s wish to have one resource 100% dedicated to the project when that was not originally in the plan to do so.  If change orders can be put in place – and if the customer has the money to move forward with them – then everything is fine.  But if the customer refuses the change orders, thus refusing to pay more for the personnel demands, then you have an issue.  Likewise, if the customer’s funding has run dry and the project is nowhere near complete, you also have an issue.  Unless your organization is ready to go ‘pro-bono’ the rest of the way on the project, you may have no choice but to end or halt the project until more funding is available on the customer side.

Project funding runs dry

Future project phases are being questioned

This one may not cause to actually cancel the remainder of the project, but it is likely time to implement what you have, assuming you’ve got a workable solution through the phases already rolled out, and leave the rest of the project until the work is better defined.  Customer priorities and infrastructure changes can cause future phases of a project to come into question.  Are they still needed?  Should the order of the phases be changed?  It’s nearly impossible to keep your expensive project resources intact while the customer takes two months to decide so it’s usually a good stopping point to give the customer a chance to regroup and figure out how they want to spend the rest of their project dollars – and if they even want and need to.

Customer project personnel are constantly turning over

Have you ever had one of those projects where the customer team seems to be moving through a revolving door?  Customer team members come and go, even the project lead on the customer side seems to change regularly.  Team members often aren’t as critical as the actual project sponsor or leader – at least not for major decision-making.  But if this turnover in customer personnel is causing schedule slippages, missed tasks, and budget overruns as your team scrambles with conflicting direction from the customer, then you have a major issue on your hands.  Before the blame falls to the delivery project team and to you as the project manager, be sure to document the customer team changes well.  Following that, if the situation is not improving and productivity has come to a standstill or major decisions are not being made, then it may be time to stop work on the project and force the customer to make some key ‘go’, ‘no-go’ decisions on the remaining work on the project.