When to decide to kill a failing project rather than let it consume more funds, effort and attention.

Far too many projects limp on for years consuming costs but reducing in value.

Because they’re seen as ‘important’ by the business, they’re allowed to continue even when they’ll never deliver the outcomes and benefits expected.

Every Governance Committee needs to regularly look hard at their project and ask, “Is it time for a kill?”

Time for a kill?

The project had already failed, been stopped or refocused three times. From its initial inception to now it had been in existence for 7 years. The total funds invested, and mostly written off, neared $50m.

This time, the company vowed, it was going to succeed!

First step, they put in as project manager a business executive who had never run a project before. (And, it transpired later, did not really see this appointment as a great career move.)

Second step, they chunked down the project to deliver in phases. The first phase was designed to remove the paper out of the process. But, instead of actually eliminating the paper processes, they merely automated them. The paper became electronic images and the process was only marginally improved.

Small wonder, therefore, that the project continued to struggle with its business case. It was only allowed to continue because the senior executives fervently believed it was worthwhile.

Step three, they changed the Sponsor. After the third attempt had failed the Sponsor was fired (along with the Project Manager). A radical step that indicated a level of seriousness.

However, the new Sponsor could recognize a ‘hot potato’ when he saw one and handballed accountability to a newly created “Project Director” role designed, not least, to be the effective sponsor of the project.

This ‘effective’ Sponsor inherited a project ‘in flight’ with plans, technologies selected and a continuously ‘draft’ business case and a business unit that wouldn’t release staff to work on the project. (The business unit was experiencing record high sales volumes. This made achieving the efficiencies and work reductions the project promised even more urgent while also putting additional workload pressure on the staff, making releasing staff for the project difficult. So what’s new?)

However, the project team and business inadvertently conspired to create a ‘Catch-22’ situation. The project did not plan to deliver many short-term savings in order to create the capacity to release the staff to work on the project, so the project was going at half pace or less, because the analysts could not get access to the business staff to understand the requirements, so the time to realizing the benefits was extended, therefore the project didn’t plan to deliver many short term savings, …

The project was doomed a fourth time.

Sheer determination would ensure it delivered something and would, eventually, cover all of the scope of the project. So, at more than twice the cost required it would deliver less than half of the potential benefits.

This would be considered by some to be a ‘success’ as it had been completed — but as a failure by any other measure.

What Could Have Been Done To Rescue This Mess?

  1. Focus on the easiest, most voluminous processes first to create immediate savings to create the capacity for full business involvement to focus on the more complex processes.Otherwise, stop the project — too little business involvement means too few desired business outcomes and benefits will be achieved, therefore, too little value will be delivered.
  2. Appoint an experienced business-oriented project manager — one who would have recognised that not having the business requirements complete after 15 months of trying was a leading indicator of failure!
  3. Set a series of ‘go/no go’ decision points and be prepared to stop the project.
  4. Require the project to deliver some immediate savings within, say, 4 months, or kill the project.
  5. Require the project to finalise the business requirements and valid business case within, say 6 months, or kill the project. (In reality, these requirements could be gathered, simplified and specified in less than 100 days)
  6. Require the project to identify how additional savings will be delivered in the following, say 6 months, or kill the project.

Get some focus, some urgency and some value. Let’s save this project from its slow, painful existence, or kill it, now!

NB TOP's Project Governance Program requires each governance team to quarterly sign off that their project is still relevant, viable and deliverable. This causes management to reevaluate the worthiness of their investment rather than let it be 'condemned to completion'. 


Topics: Project Success, Project Governance

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Feb 2008) as "When To Kill A Project"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections