Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
Ray caught me between meetings yesterday. He had a worn-out look on his face and spoke to me in a low monotone.

“I don’t know if you heard, but our project to create a new series of financial forecasting models has been put on hold,” he said. “Most likely, it will be cancelled.”

“No,” I said back in a whisper. “I had not heard that. What’s going on?”

“Nothing sinister,” Ray replied in a more normal voice. “Our finance sponsor was reassigned to be the CFO of the European Division. The project is on hold until a new person is assigned. However, I am already hearing from our client project manager that this project has slipped down on the priority list and will not be continued.”

“That’s too bad,” I said. “But you aren’t the first person to have a project cancelled. I guess if the project is no longer a high priority, it’s better that it stops now, rather than continue to spend money on work that is not needed.”

“I guess,” Ray said. “But I just feel like all the work we have done will be wasted. I’m sure the team will be disappointed as well. They were all doing a good job, but now we will have to get them all reassigned.”

I understood Ray’s concern about the team being disappointed, but his comment about all the work being wasted raised a flag with me. It sounded like he was ready to walk away from the project right then. Before he throws up his hands, some work needs to be done to close the project down smoothly and leverage the work that was done.

“Let’s talk about what has to happen next to make sure that all of your work has not been wasted,” I said.

Mentor advice
As a project manager, you should know that almost any project is susceptible to cancellation. Sometimes, this is a direct result of a project being overbudget or over the deadline. In other cases, it has nothing to do with how the project is executing. In Ray’s situation, for example, the business priorities have changed, and the person who was the primary backer is no longer in a position to push it through.

When a project is fully completed, a number of activities take place as a part of a formal project conclusion process. Obviously, when a project ends abruptly, some of these actions don’t make sense. However, many of the activities still should be done to ensure that the organization can leverage the work that has been invested.

In this case, Ray should consider the following items as part of the project closure:

  • At this point, Ray only knows that the work is on hold. He needs to get an official confirmation that the project will be cancelled. Ray’s manager may need to help find the right person to authorize this, since the sponsor’s replacement has not been named yet.
  • Project deliverables that are not started yet will not be completed. However, some deliverables are in progress. Ray needs to validate whether these should be completed before the project officially is closed. In Ray’s case, for example, his team was working on an Implementation Strategy and a Training Strategy. Both of these will be stopped where they are. However, his team has completed about 90 percent of the Business Requirements. Chances are that the client will want them to complete this work, so that the final deliverable will be available in case this project or a similar one is started up later.
  • Regardless of when the project ends, Ray should give formal performance feedback to the members of the team that they can use as input for their next performance review.
  • Ray should hold a project conclusion meeting to discuss how the project was executed and gather feedback and key findings that might be leveraged in the future.
  • Part of the purpose of the conclusion process is also to help the team members get reassigned to other projects. This is also critical when a project ends on short notice.

Bottom line
It can be disappointing when a project is cancelled, but it’s important for the organization to be smart about not ramping the work down too quickly. Steps should be taken to ensure that a cancelled project is closed down smoothly, with an opportunity to leverage the work that has been completed to date and to make sure that the people involved are all accounted for.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project-management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project-management methodology called TenStep.

Arrested development

How have you worked to make the best of projects that were cancelled? Share your suggestions with us in an e-mail or by posting your comments below.