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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.

Most projects that get into trouble are plagued by problems and oversights that existed at the very start of planning, says Todd Williams, a project failure consultant and the author of "Rescue the Problem Project, A Complete Guide to Managing, Preventing, and Recovering from Project Failure" (2010, AMACOM). Planners often overlook key issues, he notes. "It could be that there is one person who has done the project before who sees it as simple, [yet] he or she does not consider that the team doing the [current] project is different, and may not have the same experience as the team in the past."

 

Recognizing high risk projects

Organizations embarking on a new project should realize that some types of ventures are more failure prone than others. "There is empirical research that indicates the types of projects that are likely to be successful — or fail," Zucker says.

Zucker says planners should be aware of thee basic project truths:

  • Small projects are significantly more successful than large ones
  • Projects with engaged executives and stakeholders are more likely to succeed than ones with low engagement
  • Agile projects are more likely to succeed than traditional waterfall projects

"The larger the project the more likely it will fail," Williams states. "Ten million dollar projects fail much more frequently than $100,000 projects — there are more moving parts." Williams notes that incremental deployment is generally a safer approach than undertaking a sweeping multifaceted project.

Michael Coakley, CIO of the City of White Plains, New York, and an adjunct computer science professor at Pace University, says that personal experience has shown him that customer relationship management (CRM) implementations tend to be the most risky projects. "Those systems are only as good as the data that goes into them and sales people and sales managers may not be so forthcoming with that information, fearing it takes away their competitive advantage," he observes.

Coakley observes that enterprise resource planning (ERP) initiatives are another potential minefield since, in most cases, both old and new systems will have concurrently during what might become a lengthy transition period. "That can put a lot of strain on all the players involved," he says.

 

Why IT projects fail

A project's overall trajectory — and its likelihood of success or failure — is typically set on the day it starts. "Projects with clear objectives and strong executive engagement tend to be successful," Zucker says. "Projects with broad objectives, where the finish line is fuzzy, will struggle or fail." He points to the 2017 PMI Pulse of the Profession global management survey, which shows that strong executive involvement increases the likelihood of project success by 43 percent. "Yet only 60 percent of projects get that support," Zucker notes.

 

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