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Failing Project: Do You Know When it’s Time to Pause Your Project?

Failing Project: Do You Know When it's Time to Pause Your Project?

Sometimes ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’ is precisely the wrong attitude to your project. It’s important to know when it’s time to stop – or at least pause, your project. It’s likely to be because your project is failing, but it need not be. And there are many types of failure.

What’s critical is that you know when to pause your project and consider its future. So, in this article, we’ll look at all the reasons why you may want to do so.

Failing Project: Do You Know When it's Time to Pause Your Project?

Six Groups of Reasons to Pause Your Project 

And we will do so, by splitting the reasons into six groups:

  1. Value: Pause your Project because the Value Proposition is No-longer Sound
  2. Commercial: Pause your Project for Wider Commercial Reasons
  3. Technical: Pause your Project because of Overwhelming Technical Challenges
  4. Project Management: Pause your Project for Wider Delivery Reasons
  5. Political: Pause your Project for Reasons of High- or Low-level Politics and Perceptions
  6. External: Pause your Project for Reasons Wholly External to the Project or even its Sponsoring Organization

We’ll look at each of these in turn, before ending with:

Value: Pause your Project because the Value Proposition is No-longer Sound

We create and deliver projects to realize value for their sponsoring organizations. Value is a measure of the surplus of benefit over cost. So, either:

  • Value = Benefit – Cost
  • Value = Benefit / Cost
  • Return on Investment (ROI) = (Benefit – Cost)/Cost

This, therefore, gives us a number of reasons why we may need to pause or cancel a project.

Benefit

Let’s start with the benefits. You may need to pause your project if:

  • You can no longer achieve the benefits you envisaged in your business case
  • Or, you no longer have sufficient confidence that you will achieve the benefits you envisaged in your business case
  • There is a significant risk to the achievement of the benefits you envisaged in your business case
  • Your revised completion date is too late to realize sufficient benefits
  • The benefits you envisaged are no longer as valuable as you considered in your business case
  • Indeed, the project may no longer meet the organization’s needs

Cost

The other side of the coin is cost. You may need to pause your project if:

  • Costs have risen – or you expect them to rise – to a level that would render the value marginal or worse
  • Significant risks have emerged that threaten to destroy the benefits case
  • Long-term maintenance, service, or operating costs have risen
  • Decommissioning and other whole-life costs have risen

Finally, you might pause your project because a compliance failure – or a risk of compliance failure – diminishes the value of your project.

Commercial: Pause your Project for Wider Commercial Reasons

The value reasons are economic factors internal to the project. But, there are other economic reasons that arise outside of the project’s costs and benefits. These commercial reasons to pause your project include those internal and external to the sponsoring organization.

Internal to the Sponsoring Organization

  • A change in strategic direction or priorities within the sponsoring organization
  • Your organization may be suffering cash flow difficulties, making it hard to fund even worthwhile projects
  • There may be intractable commercial disputes with suppliers, contractors, consultants, or other vendors. This may be just a breakdown in relationships but, usually, these can be fixed with sufficient goodwill on both sides
  • Key suppliers or contractors may no longer be available to you – or may not be able to service your project’s needs. This could be for one of many possible reasons

External to the Sponsoring Organization

  • The competitive market has shifted. The effects on-demand or competition render the value of the project’s deliverables diminished or nil
  • Your competitors may have or be expected to deliver a superior product or service, rendering your project obsolete

Technical: Pause your Project because of Overwhelming Technical Challenges

Technology never goes wrong.

As if!

Many projects are technically ambitious and manage to deliver, regardless. It’s a testament to the skill and dedication of engineers and developers of all kinds. 

However, technical difficulties may drive you to pause your project – at least while you resolve what you will do to resolve them. Examples include:

  • Technical problems that the team is unable to solve
  • The complexity of the technical requirement is outside the team’s capability
  • Failures at testing, which cannot be easily resolved
  • Continuing quality issues that the team is unable to resolve
  • Technical surprises that have a substantive impact on the value proposition 
  • Core assumptions turn out to be flawed or simply wrong
  • The project encounters unanticipated Health & Safety issues
  • Core elements of the technology platform or other infrastructure become obsolete
  • Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) solutions become available at a reduced price, rendering the development unnecessary

Project Management: Pause your Project for Wider Delivery Reasons

Of course, technical challenges are just one part of delivery. There is also a wide range of other project-related reasons why you may need to pause your project.

Resource Challenges

  • The project cannot access the resources it needs, to proceed:
    • Team members
    • Specialists
    • Consultants or contractors
    • Materials
    • Equipment or other assets
    • Funding
  • Suppliers, consultants, or contractors fail to meet their delivery obligations
  • Loss of key personnel or expertise

Management and Control

  • A disaster or substantial failure in the project
  • The project manager has lost control of their project. It is so far off-plan that sponsors lose confidence, and the project manager has little idea how to proceed to bring the project back under control. This is a fundamental breakdown of project management
  • The project runs into a roadblock that the team cannot overcome. The result is that the project can no longer be completed by the necessary deadline or with the funding available. This could be: 
    • Technical (see above) 
    • Legal/regulatory
    • Compliance/quality control
    • Policy/approvals
    • The emergence of major risks or issues
  • Continued lack of progress for any other reason

Requirements Issues

  • There is a lack of clarity in the project definition, its goal, objectives, or scope
  • Changes to requirements render the project no longer viable or exceed the approved parameters of the Business Case
  • The 80:20 (Pareto) Principle kicks in. There are diminishing returns for additional functionality and the marginal cost of meeting these requirements exceeds the marginal value. This is especially relevant in adaptive (agile) projects
  • Failure of change control processes leads to ballooning scope creep, with associated implications for cost, risk, and schedule

Governance Problems

Political: Pause your Project for Reasons of High- or Low-level Politics and Perceptions

Whenever you have two people in a room, you also have politics. And we must never underestimate the extent to which people can cause you to need to pause your project. But I am also going to include organizational strategy here. After all, what tends to be the biggest source of politics at the top of an organization? Yup – it’s the direction of movement.

Sometimes there are organization-wide pressures

  • The organization is no longer able to make available the resources or budget that the project needs
  • Other projects have greater priority in a competition for limited resources
  • There is a change in business strategy, rendering the project obsolete 
  • The social or environmental impacts of the project are no longer acceptable

Sometimes the need to pause your project is down to one or two key people

  • A change in organizational leadership leads to a re-assessment of project priorities
  • The project suffers a loss of sponsorship as its main supporter moves on (or is moved on!)

And sometimes it’s down to a whole group of people

  • Stakeholders, users, or customers change their perceptions about your project. Or, they simply lose interest in what you are doing, with a likely adverse impact on the value proposition.

External: Pause your Project for Reasons Wholly External to the Project or even its Sponsoring Organization

The last category is for things that come out of the left field and are wholly outside of the domain of the project. Indeed, most are also outside of the control of the sponsoring organization. These include:

  • National or regional political shifts, leading to changes (or anticipated changes) in legislation or regulation
  • A major national, regional, or international crisis – the most obvious examples include:
    • Epidemic or pandemic
    • Political turmoil
    • Conflict and warfare
    • Civil unrest
    • Environmental disasters, like fire, weather, earthquake…
  • Project success is contingent on another project (within or outside the sponsoring organization) that either fails or is canceled

My Reflections

With all of these reasons to pause, stop, or even cancel a project, it seems remarkable how many projects persist through to successful delivery. This is often despite these problems, rather than because none occur.

Let’s face it; the last few years have seen a fairly high level of national and international crises around the world. But we as a profession – and our employers – are resilient. We keep going and deliver.

Additional Resources

Here are some articles and videos that will help you with some of the ideas in this article:

What Reasons have You Seen to Pause Your Project?

I enjoy reading questions and comments and will always respond to any contribution.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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