How to kill a project in five easy steps

How to kill a project in five easy steps


Much of my consulting career has involved the development and management of projects for clients. These projects were mostly involving the transformation of workforce capability, introduction of shared services, organizational design or workforce design, off the back of large IT infrastructure changes.

Projects, when conceived by many clients, provide a way to introduce a new system, process or way of working. Typically, all projects are started with the intent of making an organization more profitable or efficient and so in this mindset offer a positive and productive solution to the business problems.

However, as with many well intentioned ideas, some projects can also serve to exacerbate a problem or even create new ones. Now I need to be clear, I still believe that isolated pockets of work are essential in furthering an organizations capability and offering its employee’s the opportunity to diversify their experience, however, if not managed closely, these projects fail to meet their objectives.

From my experience there are five main reasons for a project to fail. That’s not to say that all projects fail, but in the main there are a group of underlying factors that have been proven to derail any project if not addressed, or at least understood.

The five factors for failure can be described as:

  1. Scoping and envisioning the end state

“To the person who does not know where he wants to go there is no favorable wind.”- Seneca

This factor in particular can see a project fail and should be quite a simple exercise when developing the project plan. An organization must understand what they are trying to achieve through the delivery of a project and in order to realize the potential of a project; they must have a clear vision of what the end state will be.

Many times during a project I have seen organizations take a decision to make a change to a system, process or workforce for the betterment of the organization and its people only to dive in without really articulating what the end state will actually look like. There should be time taken to understand how the implementation or change will impact the current environment, paint a picture of the now, how it will transition to the future and how it will impact the current work practices.

A good tool in this sort of instance is to take the time to develop personas or targeted experiences. To do this you describe how an employee or user of a service operates today and then discuss what will change when the implementation is complete. Taking time to address the “what will be” question will ensure a project has the best chance of completion and articulates the future state for the project team to aim for.

  1. Consistent focus

“Many people don’t focus enough on execution. If you make a commitment to get something done, you need to follow through on that commitment. “- Kenneth Chenault

So you have scoped and commenced a project with your organization and understand what the end state will look like upon completion. There are still many variances and external influences which could derail the work proposed.

Common to these are change of policy, loss of funding, change of priorities within the organization and some are “acts of God”, those being well out of the span of control of the projects ownership.

As an example I have been involved in a number of projects that have been, for want of a better term, hijacked to meet a completely unrelated requirement of an organizations leadership. A good example would be the need to reduce FTE or ‘right-size’ an organization. One minute you are designing a service delivery focused organizational structure with related service levels and agreements, the next you are asked to find FTE savings in the new structure without the diminishment of service to customers. It is a reality of today’s business, but without the ability to focus on what the organization and its customers really required the project to deliver, a project team will lose their momentum and ability to deliver a satisfying outcome.

  1. The struggle between project and BAU

“It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.”- Elbert Hubbard

I think most people can relate to this issue. An organization commences a project and it is seen as an opportunity for its employees to become involved in more diverse and challenging work. However the reality is that in most cases these employees still have a “day job” to complete and generally a projects budget does not stretch to cover the BAU component of everyday business.

I have witnessed many occasions where the struggle between designing a new future and delivering what needs to be done today has resulted in a project being ground to a halt, or in some cases abandoned all together. As the saying goes “you cannot repair an aircraft whilst it is flying” and reality is that most functions are required to continue to deliver, regardless of what projects are required.

Many organizations are moving towards a more fluid “contingent” employee base. That is, all employees are essentially “floating” between projects and BAU and the resource model is developed to accommodate periods of high intensity project work as well as maintaining the status quo.

  1. Communication

“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.” – Rollo May

As far as projects go, communication is king. Without effective communication you cannot achieve stakeholder buy in nor can you build a case for executive approval at the various gate processes.

Projects can and will fail without effective and persuasive communication. From stakeholders feeling alienated and railing against any proposed changes to leadership refusing to commit support to projects because they simply “do not know enough” about what is trying to be achieved.

Communication must win the hearts and minds of its intended audience and create a feeling of belonging, ensuring a project has a number of champions at various levels of the organization.

Through creating a “community” through effective and targeted communication, you can give your project the best chance to succeed.

  1. Ownership

“Ownership: ‘A commitment of the head, heart, and hands to fix the problem and never again affix the blame.” John G Miller

This is perhaps the hardest factor to manage. Oft times there will be a lot of people who will want ownership of certain projects in an organization. What derails a project from an ownership perspective though, is the reasons behind why someone would want that ownership.

Any organization can be a political place. Never more evident than when a game changing project is on offer. The people who would see the implementation of a project as a way of furthering their career or winning political points often prove to be that projects downfall.

They can either refuse to engage fully in the project and rather just hold it as a trophy or engage too much and micro manage the project into extinction. The important thing about ownership is that the owner must have an understanding of what needs to be achieved and a passion to see it happen. They should also be of a level and experience that understands the internal hurdles a project needs to overcome.

As stated before, not all projects fail, yet I can guarantee you that of the ones that do the above five factors have most likely played a key role in its downfall.

James Valentine