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Project Deferral: What to do when Your Project is Deferred

Project Deferral - What to do When Your Project is Deferred

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?

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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.

  1. First, we will look at what project deferral is, and why organizations defer projects. The reasons for your deferral can have an impact on how you handle it.
  2. Second, we will survey the things you’ll need to do while your project is on hold.
  3. And third, we’ll see what you need to focus on, when you restart your project, once the deferral comes to an end.
  4. Finally, we’ll offer a thematic survey of the most important things to bear in mind when you are handling project deferral.

What is Project Deferral, and Why do Projects get Deferred?

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:

  1. As with so much else in good project management, deferral arises from a formal decision. If there is no decision, it is just a delay… schedule slippage.
  2. Deferral is for a limited time. If the delay is indefinite, this is a Project Suspension.
  3. There is an intention to re-start the project after the deferral period. If there is not, then the project has been stopped.

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.

The Main Reasons why Projects get Deferred

Project Deferral: What to do when Your Project is Deferred

Projects can be deferred for a large number of reasons, but it always comes down to the timing being wrong because of either politics or pragmatics.

Politics

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 the what their choices mean.

Pragmatics

There are also real, practical reasons for deferring a project. Examples include:

  • Availability of resources: people, materials, equipment
  • Regulatory or legislative changes – which are macro-political. But, they are external to your organization, and have not been set up to specifically affect your project
  • Unforeseen difficulties, such as technical challenges
  • Financial or commercial reasons, like availability of funds or trading environment
  • Changes in operating procedures, or appetite for risk, which arise for reasons wholly outside of your project

What to Do While Your Project is On Hold

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.

If you aren’t a speaker of British English, the idiom ‘as long as a piece of string’ is an answer to any question about a quantity that you cannot determine. So:

Qn: ‘How long will the deferral be?’

An: ‘As long as a piece of string.’

That is, it could be any length.

Putting on Hold

First of all, you will need to communicate with your team members. Le them know the situation, and be as open as you can with them.

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.

Prepare to Re-start

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.

Shorter Project Deferral

For shorter deferrals, you can use this time to step-back and review where you are. It’s a chance to catch-up on lower priority tasks, like paperwork. In preparation for re-starting effectively, I’d also recommend you get the team together to review:

  • risks and issues
  • contingencies
  • dependencies
  • lessons learned
  • role allocations

Longer Project Deferral

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 re-start. And you will certainly find that there will be some delays in getting back up to full speed, as people’s recollections will dim with time.

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.

Deferral Period Risks

If your project is remedial or problem-resolving, what can go wrong during deferral period? Upgrade projects may be just in time to avoid threats to the business or to health and safety. The delay may be critical, and so you might need to take some preventative action. Likewise, if your project includes planned maintenance, you may not be able to safely pause those parts of your project.

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.

What to Do When You Re-start a Deferred Project

As soon as you learn that your project is du to re-start, you have two urgent priorities:

  1. Understand the parameters. What is the basis and political context to re-starting, and what, if anything has changed?
  2. Re-engage your team and any vendors that you put on hold. This includes finding out who is no longer available, and starting to make provisions to replace them.

Re-Engaging Your Team

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…

Two Important Priorities

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:

  1. Communication
  2. Updating your project plan

Communication

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:

  • New delivery date (and project schedule)
  • Any changes to the terms of reference
  • Significant changes to the project team

Updating Your Project Plan

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…

Additional Things to Do

  • Update your issues log, and allocate responsibilities
  • Maintain and test any equipment
  • Ensure any health and safety certificates are up-to-date
  • Review your reporting format and process in the light of changes
  • Check the financial status of the project – are your records up-to-date and what funding remains available
  • Re-activate contact with suppliers, contractors, and consultants
  • Allocate team members to project work packages, and brief them fully

Critical Considerations When You are Handling Project Deferral

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 period, and upon start-up.

Governance

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:

  • Context
  • Dates
  • Reasons
  • Decision-makers

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.

Change Control

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.

Business Case

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:

  • Adding to the costs
  • Increasing your risk profile
  • Eroding the benefits your project can deliver
  • Missing the availability of funding or resources

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. Deferral may have rendered a previously viable project unviable.

Procurement

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:

  • Tender offers may expire. typically, bidders make an offer on a time-limited basis, such as 30, 60, or 90 days.
  • Prices may be affected by the cost of funds (interest rates) or foreign exchange (forex) rates. These kinds of price movements are equally likely to be adverse or in your favor.
  • Time-limited purchase approvals my have expired.
  • Re-activate any service and supply contracts, by reviewing documentation and contacting suppliers.
  • The worst case is that the deferral has placed you in breach of your contract with your suppliers. I would hope that, first, you would have a sufficiently robust contract and, second, you would have managed your relationship with the supplier of at the point of deferral.

Stakeholder Perceptions

You will, I hope, be in regular communication with stakeholder during the project deferral period, and at project re-start.

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.

Project Delivery

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.

Risk

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.

External Factors

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:

  • Political, legislative, or regulatory changes
  • Technology shifts – these could be positive, making new technology available, or could be adverse. What if your project is committed to an older technology and competitors starting a new project can harness the new technology to create better solutions? And maybe the technology you rely on becomes out-dated or even ‘end-of-lifed’ by its provider.
  • Changes in the commercial or economic environment can render your business case unviable. Or, they could demand a substantial change in the specification of your project.

Have You Had to Deal with Project Deferral?

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/

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 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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