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Not every project makes its way to the finish line, and not every project should. As a project manager, you’re almost certain to find yourself, at some point in your career, running a project that has no chance of success, or that should never have been initiated in the first place. Sometimes the fault lies in poor decision-making at the top of the organization, and in other cases an unanticipated industry development can turn a promising project into an exercise in futility.

How to Gracefully Kill a Project

Whatever the underlying reason might be, knowing when a project is doomed, and knowing how to end a project gracefully, are essential skills for any enterprise project manager. Killing a project is never a fun or rewarding process, but the alternative—allowing a hopeless project to linger for months, continuing to consume valuable resources—is even worse. If you can make your stakeholders understand the reasons for pulling the plug, you should be able to avoid any damage to your professional reputation, and you may even be able to use the experience to your advantage.

The four strategies listed below will help you navigate the potentially hazardous business of putting an early end to the project management life cycle.

#1. Understand the Impact to the Organization

Ending a low-priority, low-visibility project can be simplicity itself—a quick meeting or two with project stakeholders, a bit of documentation to tie up the loose ends and you’re done. Killing a project with a large budget, large project team and high level of involvement at the executive level, on the other hand, is enough to rattle the nerves of the most confident project manager. Before you take any steps toward ending a project, think about who will need to be involved in the decision, who should hear the news first and what (if any) contingency plans will need to be put in motion.

#2. Make the Business Case

Once a project is underway, there’s usually quite a bit of inertia to overcome before you can bring the work to a halt. Resources have been allocated, dependent projects may be starting up and everyone involved has a natural drive to keep the project moving. You can minimize turmoil and build consensus quickly by helping stakeholders understand how much time and money will be wasted if the project continues. As a general rule, the larger the project, the more homework you’ll need to do before recommending that it be cancelled.

#3. Don’t Play the Blame Game

Usually, when a project needs to be terminated, someone has made a big mistake somewhere along the way. No matter who’s to blame, you won’t do yourself any favors by pointing the finger. Your end of project report should give an accurate description of the reasons that the project needed to be killed, and that’s all. Any unnecessary or excessive details about mistakes by team members, executives, vendors or anyone else, will give the impression that you’re trying to deflect blame from yourself.

#4. Suggest Alternatives

You can help take the sting out of delivering bad news by making positive suggestions at the same time you’re making the case to end the project. It may not always be possible, but in many cases, you may be able to recommend other ways in which the organization can achieve the initial project’s intended goal, or apply the work that has already been completed toward another organizational goal. The more helpful and positive you are when breaking the bad news, the more likely you’ll be kept on for future projects.

Doug Uptmor
Doug Uptmor, Director of Content