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To Flush or Not To Flush

Toilet_tank_handles_dtl98642 When is it appropriate to call it quits on a "bad" project and give it a decent burial?  Ah, 'tis a question for the ages, one that has befuddled many a project manager and executive sponsor.  If you've thrown $10 million after a project over the past eight years that has produced only an itty-bitty teensy-weensy sliver of the grandeur originally promised, is that enough to keep the project on life support to allow it just one more chance to make good on its promises?

Michael Krigsman recently wrote a couple of insightful posts called Knowing When to Quit and Throwing Good Money After Bad?  Both touched on this issue of determining when to pull the plug (or in some cases, blindly charging ahead, consequences be damned).  Michael's analysis of failed projects is indepth and spot on, as it appears he has made it his life's calling to study the phenomenon of failed projects.  Although I suppose, given the frequency with which failed projects happen, one could hardly refer to it as a phenomenon.  But I digress.  The point is, he's just darn good at uncovering story after story after story about project failure.

So... how does a money-strapped executive of the 21st century decide when to call it a day, say enough is enough, and flush that you-know-what down to the sewers of the dead project graveyard?  Here are a few simple questions that beg to be asked (and answered honestly):

  1. Is the project recoverable?  If the variances have thrown the project so far off track to the point of humiliation for all involved, is it possible to do a course correction, change some staff, and perform a formal project recovery?
  2. Do we still care about the project?  Will it add value to our organization through some kind of tangible improvement to our bottom line, cycle time, customer perception or infrastructure?  Is anybody out there still excited enough about this project to stand up and fight for it?  Was this project really important or was it an executive's pet idea?  (OK, who let the CEO read trade magazines again?  You know this always happens when he does that.)
  3. Are we simply in love with the sunk cost?  "But we've already spent 15 years and $22 million dollars doing the analysis" is not a reason to keep a project on the books.  Nothing will recover that money or time... ever.  Get over it.  That is the same rationale that co-dependent people use when they call Dr. Laura to explain why they've stayed in a toxic relationship for years and years.  Maybe Dr. Laura should start doing project management consulting... er... um... strike that.
  4. Is now really the right time for this project for our organization?  Do we have the right people?  Is our culture ready for this change or were we jumping on a proverbial bandwagon?  Can our capacity, infrastructure and architecture handle the results of this project?  Has the project caught us with our organizational pants down?

If your answers to 1, 2, and 4 were "no" while 3 yielded a "yes" then do yourself a favor.  Put your fingers to the handle, press down, and listen for the swish-gurgle-flush.  Trust me, you'll feel better.

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Michael Wagner

This has to be a must reading post for a lot of folks in the big corporate world.

My first exposure to this was a project that had millions and millions plowed into it, one that everyone I worked with cursed with a well known "son of _____" oath, and one that went on and on too long.

As an outside consultant I was amazed at how a project could be obviously in need of a quiet committal, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and yet no one would do the deed.

Always get real value from your postings!


Michael - thanks for weighing in on this. I'm sure you have to see this same issue in brand ownership... companies and individuals sticking to a "story" that no longer fits (if it ever did). Pulling the plug is something that few professionals can understand when/how to do.

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