Friday, January 24, 2014

Terminating Dead-End Projects

Believe it or not, most IT projects fail. And, worse still, about one in five of these failures can threaten the very existence of the organization. Watching out for the early warning signs of a failing project can empower an organization to take timely action to stop a dead-end initiative before it spirals out of control and, by doing so, open up the possibility of transforming a failure into an opportunity to try again, and ultimately to succeed with fresh insight.

Having a great vision is no guarantee of success. IT projects fail for many reasons —frequently internal— over which the company has direct control. They might be the result of poor alignment of vision with the best plan for execution, failure to define an accurate project scope, having the wrong stakeholders involved and on a “different page” and, finally, failure to establish effective project leadership.

Dead-end projects are initiatives that have reached a point from which any further investment of time, effort, or money can at best produce only marginal improvements. Projects may have failed to deliver on the vision, they may be incomplete, lacking in key features, unsustainable and un-scalable. When a project reaches this stage, painful, embarrassing, and uncomfortable as it may be, the company would do better to take control of the situation and, to use a morbid analogy, take the patient off the life support system and give others a chance to live. Or, going back to our project discussion, the more proactively a team can recognize projects as “failed”, the faster they can cut their losses, move on, and try again.

The good news is that there are a number of things that can be done to reduce the likelihood of a dead-end and ultimately a failed IT project. Start by ensuring that the list of gotchas above is in place. Share the statistics about IT project failure rates with your team and get them to do a pre-mortem to identify all the possible risks before starting a project. This may not be the easiest time to think about such a seemingly negative topic, so outside perspectives may provide valuable insights. Encourage your shareholders to come up with a “plan B”; having one in place in not an excuse for failure but rather an assurance that things will go on if anything should happen.

Most importantly, define your milestones. These are the mutually agreed points at which deliverables must be delivered within budget. Be as specific as possible when defining the tipping point beyond which no further work will be done, regardless of excuses. For example, the point might be after two milestones have been missed. This will get everyone on the same page; focused on working together to ensure that it doesn’t happen, and prepared to switch to plan B if the worst comes to the worst.

Terminating a project is never easy. A lot of people will be disappointed, not least yourself. Your mistake may cost your company/investors money and lost opportunity, and it may even cost you your job. However painful it may be, you can still turn failure into an opportunity to start with a clean slate, but not from scratch. When you do move on, you will be much further along than someone about to embark on the same journey. From this perspective, killing a dead-end project can be liberating. Once you have the plan in place, the next step is to admit mistakes, de-brief and analyze, take a break, and move on to the next project. And maybe this time, it will work like a charm.

Rachel, Dan & Dmitry

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