If you work in Project Management for long enough, you will inevitably encounter this: project deferral. For one reason or another, your project needs to be put on hold.
Why does this happen? And what do you need to do, during the deferral period and when your project re-starts? And what are the critical things you’ll need to consider when you handle project deferral?
In this guide, we’ll look at everything you need to know when your project is deferred.
As you’d expect, we’ll tackle this in a logical way.
Let’s kick off with a definition of Project Deferral.
Formal decision to delay a project for a limited time, with the intention to re-start it.Definition of Project Deferral
Notice that there are three important points here, beyond the ‘everyday’ meaning of delay:
Often, deferrals last from a week or so, to a few months and occur because there is a specific temporary reason why you cannot make progress. Let’s look at the reasons this can happen.
Projects can be deferred for a large number of reasons, but it always comes down to the timing
This is about priorities and what people or organizations want. Individual executives or board members may withhold approval for reasons that are wholly unclear to you as the project manager on the ground. Or you may understand the politics behind it. We looked at politics and project management in great detail in an earlier article, and I also did an interview on the topic for the People and Projects Podcast.
The critical thing to understand here is that, if someone is holding-back approval, this delay will have costs. Politics is a game that has implications for the real world. Your role as project manager is to evaluate the implications of the delay objectively. You need to ensure that decision-makers have a fair assessment of
There are also real, practical reasons for deferring a project. Examples include:
To a degree, what you need to do while your project is on hold, and waiting to restart can depend on one question: ‘how long?’
This is a piece of string*, of course. There is no absolute length of deferral that will trigger a shift from one approach to another. However, for longer delays, you will want to ‘mothball’ your project. That is, suspend all activity and set it up for rapid re-start. For shorter deferrals, you will keep working, at a low level, to maintain readiness for a resumption.
First of all, you will need to communicate with your team members.
And, the first thing for them to do is to pause all activities. The exception, of course, will be activities that, were you to stop doing them, would cause problems. Certain maintenance or risk prevention activities could fall into this class.
Another early priority will be to communicate with your stakeholders to let them know what is going on too. Of vital importance here will be how you communicate with your suppliers, contractors, and consultants.
Your main priority, however, will be to set up your project and people for re-starting. This means making sure everything is in a proper state, such as documentation and equipment. While things are fresh in your mind, I recommend you create a ‘re-start checklist’. This will be a context-relevant version of the next main section of this article.
For shorter deferrals, you can use this time to
For a longer deferral, you’ll need to pull your team off the project, with the consequent risk of losing some of them when you
So, a priority at the start of your longer project deferral is to get all documentation fully up-to-date, and stored properly. Now may be a time to review all your project filing.
This particularly includes contractual documentation. Review each contract and open discussions with the supplier accordingly, to mitigate the risk of a contractual dispute.
If your project is remedial or problem-resolving, what can go wrong during
But what about the budget and resources to carry this out. You may need to apply for some portion of your project funding, even during the deferral period.
As soon as you learn that your project is du to re-start, you have two urgent priorities:
You may want to consider a Re-start meeting – which will be very much like a Project Kick-off Meeting (which we’ve written about in detail). This will be especially the case where you have new team members. It will help you to introduce them into the team an give them a full briefing.
You can use your re-start meeting to plan with your team how you will tackle the start-up. Let’s look at what you’ll be thinking about…
Once you have tackled the urgent priorities, it will be time to focus on the important priorities. Again, there will be two at the top of your list:
All of your stakeholders will need a full update on the terms of your re-start. And you’ll need to make plans for how you will communicate updates to your project plan (see below).
Think about what they will want to know. I’d expect it to include:
The first step in updating your plan will be to confirm changes to:
Once you have these locked down, you can work with your team to update all elements of your plan. For me, an important part of this will be to consider the impacts of;
These are just two of the critical considerations that we’ll work through in the last major section of this article. But first, we’ll look at some…
This section is not a list of things to do. But, it is a list of things to be aware of. And, in thinking through each of them, you should be able to create checklists of things to d, both during the project deferral
Just because your project is in abeyance, it does not mean you can abandon good governance. At the very least, you must be confident that the decision to defer was made properly, and you have a proper record of who made it and how. Include:
Likewise, upon start-up, you will be eager to get going. Rightly so, of course. but good governance is still important, so make sure you get back into the processes of evaluating and recording decisions with care.
An important part of good governance is change control. And it will almost certainly be relevant f the deferral means you will need to make changes to scope, specification, or schedule. Be sure to follow your project change control process fully.
An important topic – closely related to governance and change control, is this:
Is your business case still valid?
The delay that your project deferral has created could do one or more of:
Sometimes there is a window of opportunity when a project can create significant value for its promoter. Perhaps it is launching a new product to exploit a short-term demand.
Procurement is a major source of costs, so this may fall under the business case, above. But it is worth separating it out, because of the myriad ways in which deferral can affect your procurement process:
You will, I hope, be in regular communication with stakeholder during the project deferral period, and
Spend time listening to your stakeholders, to gauge their perceptions. Reflect on what you learn, and create a plan to address concerns and errors. One thing project deferrals frequently do is to erode stakeholder confidence in your project. So, it will be important to work to re-establish trust in yourself, your team, and the project’s sponsors.
There will be a whole load of practical delivery issues to grapple with. But usually, the biggest will be resource availability. People and assets are too valuable to lie under-used. So the organization would typically re-assign them. So, you’ll need to deal with this, and replace what people who are no longer available.
Shifting your project timetable can also have an impact on the availability of the resources you still own. People’s holiday and leave periods may now clash with key project activities. Equipment may rentals may expire or other parts of the organization may need items you have borrowed.
We’ve covered off a fair amount of risks arising from your project deferral already. And you may like to take all of the sections above and consider how each of them may need to appear on your project risk register.
But, another factor is the risks that your project’s deferral may have on other activities within your organization. You would be wise to gather information about this, to fully advise your sponsor or other decision-makers.
While your project is on hold, all sorts of external factors may shift under you. The longer your deferral, the more likely these will become. Examples include:
We would love to hear your experiences and advice for Project Managers whose project is deferred. What tips and advice do you have? Or are you having to deal with project deferral? If so, what are the challenges you are tackling, and what solutions have you found/
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 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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