Leadership

10 ways to minimize the pain of killing a project

Pulling the plug on a doomed project is never fun, but you can soften the impact by following a few best practices.

No one likes to pull the plug on a system or project -- but sometimes it's the best thing to do. How can you kill a project without creating staff, user, and economic turmoil? Here are 10 measures you can take that may help.

1: Include pulling the plug in your strategy

No matter how well conceived they are, some projects and systems just don't work. Especially if you are introducing new technology or a new system, you should be up front with your users and your staff and explain that the initial project trial and test are experimental -- and that there is a possibility that things might not work. If you do this, everyone will understand that pulling the plug is also a possible outcome.

2: Pull the plug early but not too soon

There are days when a project simply doesn't go right. When this happens, be in charge of your emotions. Ask yourself, "Are the problems fixable? Is the project still worthwhile?" Until you can unequivocally answer "no" to both questions -- with no second thoughts or emotional rushes -- you shouldn't pull the plug.

3: Have alternatives

Although everyone might agree in principle that a project should be unplugged, there is always the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. This is why it is extremely important to have alternatives to the project that are ready to go. Alternatives reassure the project team. They also ensure that the ultimate effort doesn't stand still.

4: Protect the project from subterfuge

Nearly every project has its supporters and its detractors. If you are managing the project, it is your job to know who the detractors are. They can easily sabotage a project in its early phases and make the project appear like it should be unplugged. If you see some of this activity afoot, confront it immediately. Bring the issues (and the actions) out in the open where everyone can see what's going on so the problems can be addressed.

5: Conduct pilot studies with vendors before you invest

Every vendor tells you that its solution is great -- but not every solution is great. Especially when major dollars are going to be spent with a vendor, it is wise to arrange for a pilot test of the solution before you purchase it. If the consensus is that the solution just doesn't work for the company, unplug. The vendor won't be happy but will understand, since your agreement was for a trial only. Most important, your staff and company end users will avoid losing time, effort, and money.

6: Whenever possible, put unpluggable projects in the right place

The best place to put projects that carry high risk and could likely be unplugged is in an R&D or sandbox area of IT. The assumption of everyone working on projects defined in this light is that the projects could either hit or miss, so if you need to unplug, it's no big deal.

7: Accept responsibility

Unplugging projects can bring blame for why the projects failed. If you are in charge of a project that must be unplugged, accept responsibility for making the call to kill it and take the time to explain the reasoning behind your decision to all the project stakeholders.

8: Learn from the experience

Unplugging a project the first time doesn't mean that the project won't ultimately succeed. It's a good idea to perform a post mortem on the project to learn about what went right and what went wrong. This puts the company in the position to make corrections and try the project again if that is the decision.

9: Gain consensus

Although you might be ultimately responsible for killing a project, you're still one of many. Always keep end users and IT staff posted on project progress and on the decision to unplug, if this becomes necessary. Before you make that final decision, take time to communicate to all stakeholders, gather their input, and strive to arrive at a consensus before making the unplug final.

10: Maintain a positive attitude

It's disheartening to unplug projects. Your staff and end users are going to feel this, and so are you. But if you are in charge, it is up to you to offer a new direction and reassurance when the unplug decision is made. Others will be looking to you, so it's essential to maintain positive thinking.

About

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

1 comments
MarkM_in_Atlanta
MarkM_in_Atlanta

A lot of great innovations and progress have come after many failures. In this case, the author suggests building in, up front, the possibility that things may very well not work out. This is a matter of managing expectations and attitudes. For sure, you want to take calculated or educated risks; but a risk is just that, a risk (not a guarantee). I think the author is giving very good advice here.