You’ve been given the green light for a brilliant project. Senior management promises its total support, and your customers are equally encouraging. You are confident success lies ahead. But does it? Are all heavily touted projects worth the money, time, and effort it takes to bring them to fruition? Or should many be aborted before they get to launch stage? Both questions are valid. If an aggressively touted project doesn’t look like it’s going to succeed, it ought to be killed before a penny is spent on it. It sounds simple, but how do you know when to invest time, money, and energy in a project? There are a few common reasons, according to seasoned project managers.

Too little, too soon?
Ephraim Feig, chief technology officer (CTO) of Kintera, Inc., a San Diego-based ASP for nonprofit organizations, lists two reasons why a project should be killed.

The product is not fully developed
Feig cites IBM’s OS/2 as an example. “IBM tried to position it as the operating system of the future yet it couldn’t support that contention,” he explains. “IBM spent a fortune on it without working out the bugs.” OS/2 couldn’t compete with Microsoft’s products, according to Feig. It required 22 diskettes to load and took more than 20 minutes to boot up. And its bugs were never worked out.

Feig also cites speech recognition software, which has yet to click on a major scale. Aside from never achieving technical perfection (it frequently gets words wrong), many ergonomic experts insist speech recognition software can be dangerous to your health. Reportedly, they have been treating patients with strained vocal cords that may be caused by improper use of these products. While no definitive link between speech recognition use and vocal cord damage has been established, at least one study indicates a correlation between the two. Like other repetitive motions, talking and typing tend to weaken muscles, sometimes resulting in damage.

The product is ahead of its time and fails to meet market demands
This lesson is taught in Market Research 101, yet billions have been invested—and will continue to be—on projects that don’t stand a chance of succeeding because there’s a limited market for them. It’s naive to think demand can be created solely by promotional efforts. Maybe it’s possible if you have bottomless funds, but most project managers aren’t so fortunate.

Take streaming video, which Feig says was not aligned to the market. “In order to view streaming video clips, you need appropriate software loaded on your computer,” he says. “And, the quality of streaming video is somewhat diminished.” If your Internet connection is slow—less than 56K—there may be thinning of the video during the playback. In the 1970s, quadraphonic sound stumbled and died because the technology was poorly developed and manufacturers failed to communicate its value and advantages. Rather than seeing the advantages of four discrete channels of sound, potential customers saw a clunkier, more expensive version of stereo. They were right.

Ignoring preparation and follow-through can doom your project
Larry Richman, author of Project Management, Step by Step (AMACOM; $27.95), lists four more reasons to abort a project.

Not understanding project management or the role of the project manager
It sounds basic, but you must understand the concept of project management and “how it builds functionality in a hierarchical way.” “You can’t give someone the authority to be a project manager when you’re not ready to give him (or her) the authority and freedom to do the job,” Richman explains. “Project managers don’t stand a chance if they are lost in a hierarchical order. Instead of stepping back and letting the project manager run the show, senior management steps in and micromanages the project, which is the kiss of death.” This is common in nontechnology companies because management does not think in terms of getting things done through projects. That’s how technology companies function. Teams managed by experienced managers accomplish projects. Ideally, the work is carved up by skill level, with each team member having specific goals.

Unsure who your customers or sponsors are
“You’d be surprised at how many projects proceed without a clear understanding of who the customers are,” says Richman. Is it senior management, the board of directors, or vendors? Every project has a sponsor, yet project managers often don’t have a clue about who that is. This basic information is critical to shaping your project. The sponsor is a project’s driving force. Knowing who the sponsor is helps you stay on track because you know where to go to clarify objectives, according to Richman.

Poorly monitored project
A project must be monitored and controlled every step of the way. Projects are continually assessed so changes can be made quickly and with minimum disruption. Ideally, a project should be monitored every week or two. That means setting up metrics, or standards, so that different aspects of the project can be evaluated. Questions such as “Is the project accomplishing what we set out to do?” “Is it achieving its goals?” and “Is it on schedule?” should be asked constantly.

Little thought prior to implementation
It seems illogical, but many projects move on to conclusion with little discussion on how they will be implemented. “This is an issue that should be considered at the project’s outset,” says Richman. “How will the project’s results change existing products or services? What effect will they have on employees or customers? How will the results make customers’ or employees’ lives better? How will the results be made public? What sales/marketing/PR strategies will be employed? What changes will have to be made? Implementation is a huge issue that must be considered if the project is to be successful.”

Pulling the plug on projects

What reasons do you have for killing a project? Tell us or post a comment below.