You’ve just left the executive team meeting with another new project for your team. This time, you were able to get the management team to realize that some projects with lower priorities will have to be deferred until the new project is complete.

Now, it’s time to send out a note to inform the teams that Alpha and Beta projects are on hold until the new Gamma project is complete. There’s more than enough work for everyone, so nobody should be concerned about losing her job. You’re considering scheduling a kickoff meeting for the new project Gamma before Friday and begin to work on the overall plan for the project.

If you take or consider this approach to dealing with a new project, you’re aimed at making a big mistake—with serious and stealthy consequences. The consequences are serious because of the dollar and time impact to your organization. The consequences are stealthy because it will not be easy to measure the impact with normal management tools and reports. You also have the potential to seriously damage project team motivation and productivity.

Why it’s a costly approach
To illustrate the stealthy costs, let’s assume it normally takes most people three days to get up to speed on a new project. However, in this example, the organization does a poor job starting up new projects and deferring existing ones. This has happened too often, and the team members are burned out from too many projects. This time, it takes the team three weeks to get itself organized and productive.

The difference between three days and three weeks is 12 working days. Assume a minimum of six people, at an average total labor cost of $500 per day. Even though your new project has just started, it’s already 12 days late and $36,000 over budget. Of course, you won’t notice the schedule delay until the project is well enough along for a status report, and you may never recoup the $36,000 in lost productivity.

Most executives need to polish their prioritization skills. Your staff is always busy, but new projects keep coming along that you have to fit into the schedule. You must do this with the least amount of disruption and lost productivity. Following these steps will help you achieve that goal.

The first step in the right approach
In theory, when a new project lands on your plate, you’ll replace some current work with new work that has a higher value to the organization. That is the obvious and potentially limited viewpoint. But that isn’t all a CIO needs to worry about. You have to make sure the team stays motivated and that the process remains stable—making sure the deferred projects are easy to resume at a later date.

Ensuring motivation among team members on the now-deferred projects is actually your major challenge, because:

  1. Technical contributors like the challenge of solving problems. When you start a project, you’re engaging them with a challenging problem. Later, when the project is deferred, you prevent them from completing the solution. That is a very de-motivating scenario.
  2. If the transition to a new project isn’t handled well, it may seem that you deliberately “wasted their time” on the projects that were deferred. No one likes to feel that his time has been wasted.
  3. If your organization has a track record of deferring projects, that fact compounds the problem of decreased motivation related to deferred projects.

When nothing is deferred
Note that I’m talking about formally deferring projects. Many organizations don’t actually defer projects—they just keep adding new projects with higher priority than the existing projects. In my opinion, this is the worst possible scenario, but one that happens all the time. I’m no longer surprised when a project manager says, “We have 30 people in our IT department, supporting 65 active projects.”

When this approach is the norm in a company, employees quickly realize that any assignment is likely to be short-lived. They adapt by not engaging very deeply with the projects. The projects end up taking longer, since no one is working very hard, which increases the probability that the project will be interrupted by a new project, all of which results in a cycle of decreasing motivation.

These three tips will help you keep all projects on track:

  • Allow work to continue until a deliverable is complete.
  • Try to complete all deliverables in a lifecycle phase, if possible.
  • Bring the deferred projects to formal closure.

Allow work to continue until deliverable is complete
Let team members continue working on their task list until a deliverable is complete. Ideally, every team member should be allowed to complete the deliverable that he or she is currently working on; this will go a long way to keeping the motivation up.

You’ll have to exercise some judgment to balance the competing pressures of moving to another project and completing a recoverable unit of work on the current project. This is harder to do if you’re in the “build” phase of your project lifecycle. You might choose to complete just one prototype, or one version of a specification in order to meet time pressures for the new project.

From my experience, unless the current work is completed to a first draft level, you end up redoing all the work when you restart the project later. It generally makes more sense to get deliverables as complete as reasonably possible before starting another project.

Complete deliverables in a lifecycle phase
Many organizations use a project lifecycle to manage projects. If at all possible, try to complete an entire phase. If you’re working in the design phase, try to complete all the deliverables, such as specifications, and test plans that your methodology requires before starting something new. A completed lifecycle phase represents a logical breaking point that signifies a good transition point for the team, and a good place to resume work at a later date.

Bring formal closure
Best practices in project management include formally closing each phase of the project. Most organizations don’t think about closure until the entire project is complete. When an organization must defer a project, consider an early, but important, closure event. The time and effort spent closing a deferred project should be more than recovered when you resume the project at a later date.

Putting closure to projects
Whether for a new project or a deferred project, you need to take specific actions when deliverables are completed. First, capture lessons learned, document the experiences, and distribute the “lessons” to active project teams.

Second, archive those lessons learned and the full project work. All the work products, specifications, designs, meeting minutes, documents, and tools must be catalogued, documented, and archived in a manner that will permit easily resuming work at a later date. Then, approach the project closure activities:

  • Ask customers to formally accept the deliverables that have been produced.
  • Write employee performance reviews, if necessary.
  • Update employee skill databases, if necessary.
  • Formally review the project, if required.

Deferring a project the right way is a lot of work. It seems cheaper to just drop the project and move on. But when you factor in the risk of destroying the motivation of team members and the increased cost of cleaning up the mess later, a formal project closure and deferral process is worth the time and effort.