Banking

10 signs that your project is about to be cut

No one likes to think about their project getting canceled. But it is a reality we all have to face at one time or another. The ability to foresee the likely cancellation of your project is an important skill for keeping your career healthy. Justin James describes some things to watch out for that could signal your project's demise.

It is an unfortunate reality in the IT industry: A large number of projects are cancelled before they are complete. This would not be a problem if the IT industry were like many other industries, where the labor pool is made up almost exclusively of permanent employees. But the IT industry is filled with temporary employees, contractors, consultants, and even permanent employees hired specifically for a particular project. So when a project is cancelled, workers lose their jobs. Knowing the signs of an impending cancellation can help these workers land on their feet. Here are some signs to watch out for.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Project sponsors and stakeholders disappear

One of the surest signs of the imminent demise of a project is the disappearance of project sponsors and stakeholders. This vanishing act can be a cause or a symptom of the collapse. On the cause side, when the sponsors and stakeholders move on to other things or other companies, their projects wither on the vine. On the symptom side, people's careers are linked to their projects. When a project is sick, some people put distance between themselves and the project, and sometimes they are forcibly removed. If the people who were behind the project suddenly are no longer around, one way or the other, watch out.

#2: Changes in management are rolled out

Major changes in management always carry some risk to existing projects. After all, the new head honcho may not see the upside of a project like the previous boss did. Be wary when management changes, especially if it was a sudden and/or involuntary change. When a manager is removed, all of his or her decisions are open for re-evaluation, and that means that your project's neck is already on the block. Be especially wary if the new leadership is from outside the organization; that can signal that an "axe man" has just been put in charge.

#3: Money woes abound

When a company or organization is financially struggling, projects that are not showing immediate ROI are in particular danger. Even long-term investments that are projected to deliver a big payoff can be cut. Management all too often believes that IT projects can be put on hold indefinitely until the budgetary constraints are relaxed. IT pros know that things do not work this way -- but good luck explaining that to an executive tasked with a general cost reduction. The worse the budget crunch, the more risk there is that your project may be cut, regardless of how good it is.

#4: Your project is a "black hole"

Some projects seem to be black holes: Money, people, and other resources are sucked in, and nothing ever comes out. These projects are typical Dilbert scenarios, complete with constantly changing requirements, scope creep, moving targets, and so on. After a certain point, the phrase "throwing good money after bad" starts getting used in executive meetings when your project is under discussion. When you're over budget or past deadline by more than "just a bit," it is a roll of the dice whether the higher-ups will be willing to put more money and other resources into the project, or whether they'll just throw in the towel.

#5: Management keeps discussing project cancellation

Some projects walk the razor's edge between cancellation and continuation on a regular basis. It's a normal and natural part of the project management process to have a few go/no-go points in the plan or to have milestones that must be met for the project to be allowed to continue. What is not healthy is when the topic of project cancellation comes up outside of those planned points, especially when it happens repeatedly. This may seem obvious, but too many workers seem to be completely oblivious to the dangers of this situation. When there are enough reasons to discuss project cancellation that it comes up frequently, it will get cancelled unless something major changes.

#6: Your project becomes a tool of office politics

Does everyone hate your boss? If so, your project is in their sights. Even good projects are used as weapons in vicious political battles. Your leader's opponents argue for the cancellation of the project to diminish the prestige or resources of your boss or to cause embarrassment. It's a shame that executives behave like this sometimes, but it's a fact of life. When your boss is being stabbed in the back and his or her decisions are constantly being questioned, your project may be vulnerable, regardless of its merits.

#7: Poor leadership casts a shadow on the project

Of course, sometimes your boss' detractors are right, and your manager really is making a mess of things. If you make fun of your project leaders behind their backs, beware; someone else with a lot more pull is probably sniping at them too. The manager who is obviously inept to the staff is eventually going to be exposed, and when that happens, your project will be at risk, even if it's going well.

#8: The project is successful, but the product fails

Every now and then, there is a project that is completely successful: The product shipped on time and within budget, all of the goals were met, and so on. And then the product itself completely tanks for one reason or another. Maybe it's priced too high, or possibly a new competitor came onto the market out of left field with a better product. Your market may have experienced an unforeseeable and severe shift in direction right around the time your product rolled out. For whatever reason, your project was successful by every measure of project success. But the product that resulted is a total failure. You may be given very little time to do something to make the product successful -- and if that doesn't happen, they'll be closing up shop.

#9: Your project has low visibility

In every company, some employees come in every day for eight hours, and no one seems to know what they do, why they are there, or even what their names are. And when the layoffs come around, those employees are the first to go. Some projects are like this too. For whatever reason, they simply lack publicity or even recognition. Sometimes, this is on purpose; the company is doing something super-secret and wants to keep chatter to a minimum. But most of the time, it is an indicator that your project either is not producing anything useful, or your project leaders are not doing a good job evangelizing your work. Regardless, projects with low visibility are at risk of cancellation. Eventually, someone is going to ask why resources are being spent on it. And if no one can explain the purpose of the project, it will be decided that the project is not needed.

 #10: It truly is a bad project

Once in a while, management actually gets it right and cancels a bad project. Black holes (see #4) are not always bad projects; they may have simply been scoped incorrectly at the beginning, or maybe some bad decisions were made. Nevertheless, some projects truly deserve to be cancelled. For example, if there is already an established competitor on the market with a better product than you're planning or that it sells for less than your product will sell for, your project deserves to be cut. Or maybe you keep missing milestones or are way over budget, and the milestones and budget were reasonable. It may simply become clear that the end product will never be successful in the marketplace. If it's obvious to everyone on the project that it is a bad project, it will become obvious to the "Powers that Be" as well.


No one likes to think about their project getting cancelled. But it is a reality we all have to face at one time or another. The ability to foresee the likely cancellation of your project is an important skill for keeping your career healthy. An optimistic attitude about your work is always welcome at the office and is part of being happy, but you may need to balance it with a regular dose of objective consideration so you can decide whether it's time to move on before someone else yanks the rug out from underneath you.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

18 comments
obhiee
obhiee

Executive changes may be legit too; say when the dev fire-fighting group is moved across modules. Each module may have it's own exec. I've seen this happen in o/s projects

swdev.bali
swdev.bali

This is insightful. Another point of interest maybe the sign of user rejection of the project. I think that's very important

pgf_666
pgf_666

Don't forget that sometimes the project itself, rather than the project leadership, becomes the football. Also, sometimes the project can be too good. I was in a startup company; the project was doing well--and they dropped us for another project that wasn't working as well--as far as I can tell, even with more man-hours, it never did--so that they could announce that they had something 'new' at a trade show; it popped up the stock's value, but somebody else hyped it even more on the 'Net, eventually leading to the company going bust. And that's another thing that can happen--you're doing fine, but upper management sucks.... B)

seanferd
seanferd

2008-02-13 14:32 by Recycled contractor Reminds me of The Neverending Project. This was at one of the country's largest banks, and as far as anyone remembered, the project had been ongoing off & on for 12 years. What happened was one of the Senior VPs wanted a system to do something or other -- estimated time to complete was just over a year. About 2/3 of the way into the project, the sponsor leaves for another position within the bank. The new Senior VP of Absolutely Nothing has been watching Animal Planet's Big Cat Diaries -- the episode where they explain that the new Alpha Male has to kill all the previous male's lion cubs in order to assert his new position. And that's what he does -- he canceled the project, sending all the contractors home. A month later, he has a brainstorm -- he wants a system to do something or other. It's just like the previously killed system, but with minor tweaks, and the major innovation that it's HIS idea! They staff up with contractors for this, gather requirements, do their design, and start coding. About 2/3 of the way through the project, the sponsor leaves for a new position in the bank. The new Senior VP, who had been watching Big Cat Diaries too, kills the lion cubs and sends the contractors home because the project is obviously not needed, the budget is overdrawn, or some such reason. A month later.... http://thedailywtf.com/Comments/We-Dont-Need-Requirements.aspx#176666 Edited for extended characters, also: The article for which this was a comment is a hoot, too.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

This ends up taking one of two forks in the road. 1)Big budget = Big expectations. Funds will get pulled fast and the project shut down as the expectations are usually unrealistic. 2)Nibbled to death by ducks: The project is so well funded that it becomes a well for other projects and departments to draw on. It's not long before the well runs dry and people start scratching their heads.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

The project always finishes.Talk to El-Bosso.

aureolin
aureolin

If you can't get staff to show up at meetings, your boss doesn't have time for you and the only thing keeping the project going is your dedication, then perhaps it's time for you to re-evaluate things. What might have been a "great" project idea 6 months ago might be today's dead duck. It may be that your project is just not a high enough priority and all your resources have been sucked into a "Black Hole" (see above). In any case, if your project is dying from a total lack of interest by anyone other than yourself, maybe it's time to put that baby out to pasture yourself, and save your boss an uncomfortable meeting. You might even get some positive attention for being "proactive" and having clear judgment!

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

You can get caught in a project where nobody wants it or everybody wants it. I'm not sure which is worse.

pmwork1
pmwork1

Yes right on !! but no one ever says this at the time ! I have similar experiences. I have often been the messenger often of doom but I am often shot or not listended to and so a year later, I can say "I told you so and I gave you solutions " Generally though it is a lack of structured project management and no commitmemnt to tell it as it is. Also marketing sells (under sells)the job without discussing with project managers. They certainly do not allow in the price for Project Management costs. In the construction industry ,for instance, this is about 17% of capital cost at present. Thanks for the articles, I just wish sponsors/clients would read and heed

Justin James
Justin James

... since I've never been on a fully funded project. Then again, I've been on projects that, while underfunded, were less deprived than most, which set up those expectations you mentioned. Particularly when funding tried to replace maturity of the product. "Oh, sure it's version 1, but you have that team of awesome developers, so why is it still buggy? The other team has half as many people, so the fact that it is version 12 shouldn't make it less buggy..." J.Ja

pwoodctfl
pwoodctfl

It was a very successful project...now change orders keep coming in to add functionality, tweak existing functionality and generally play around the edges of the project. The team keeps their jobs as long as these changes keep coming in, so they keep manking the changes....now you have thousands of dollars a month being expended to add "customer hobbies" listing (no, I ma not kidding) to a customer information system...time for someone to put this project to bed...

mike.connolly
mike.connolly

Your project is easily justified through ROI and the plan is in place to execute then management decides it is such a great idea --Let's make it bigger. Suddenly there are other divisions and departments involved that may not have funding, have varying degrees of executive support and resources to devote to the initiative. In our environment BIG always seems better to management but huge projects never get beyond the planning phase and significant funding including outside consultants is wasted in the work effort before the project is eventually killed.

Justin James
Justin James

People do tend to "vote with their feet" on these things. That's a great #11! J.Ja

seanferd
seanferd

I'm not in software development, but the same dynamic happens in all sorts of projects. "No one ever says anything at the time", and if someone does, no one listens, or the messenger is shot down. I would definitely have to agree with you here.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

At a Telecom company in the 90's that had the Death Star as it's logo. Once the word got out that "There's GOLD in them thar hills" anything that could POSSIBLY get charged to the budget did.

Justin James
Justin James

... it is usually caused (at the root) by a contract that doesn't charge enough for ongoing maintenance. When those contracts charge a lot more for that, you see that those "we need this!" requests suddenly dissappear, or the project keeps making enough money to justify it. :) J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

Yeah, I have seen the same thing. It's the, "this is working great, let's ruin it!" effect. "This manager is doing a good job with his department, let's transfer him elsewhere" or "this management technique worked great for a company a fraction of our size in a different industry with an entirely different set of challenges, let's try it out!" And yours, "this project is awesome, let's start to tinker with it!" :) J.Ja

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