Changing the perception of ‘failed’ projects

I have written before about the fact that some projects are stopped for good reasons. Businesses need to be very transparent when that happens to ensure all relevant parties understand why and, crucially, agree that it is the right thing to do. Communication within the organisation needs to be carefully managed so that all the key stakeholder groups receive the same message. This should cover:

  • why the decision was taken to stop the project
  • what will be done with the work completed to date: can it be revised?
  • what will happen next?

This last point is particularly important. The project was started for a reason: to respond to and resolve a specific business problem. If the project has failed to address that problem, it remains to be solved. Companies should be as clear as possible about what steps are going to be taken to continue to address and resolve that issue. The project’s customers will need to be assured that their issue has not been forgotten.

There will occasionally be situations where the project is stopped because the problem has simply gone away: for example, a change in the law, selling a subsidiary company or withdrawing a product from sale. However, these are rare. If it does happen, organisations should explain why the project is no longer necessary and attempt some transfer of learning so that employees who have invested their time and effort in the project do not see that this has gone to waste.

I’m not the person to advise on external communication about stopped or failed projects. An organisation’s PR department can better consider the media position and offer advice specific to the individual circumstances; just make sure you get them involved at the right time.

Given that predicting project outcomes is less than an accurate science, it isn’t surprising that some projects fail. This paper has looked at why, and also at why it is sometimes a good thing that projects are stopped. However, when projects start, managers don’t think about the possibility of failure: they are concerned with success.

Projects are different from business as usual because they do something different. The business as usual environment means you can take yesterday’s performance and use it as a reasonably accurate guide to what the situation will be tomorrow. Projects don’t work like that. You can’t take yesterday’s performance as a guide to anything, much less an accurate guide. That’s what makes managing projects so much fun, and also such a great challenge for organisations.

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