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If You are Going to Fail, Fail Fast

Learn from failure

The average large company, running around 150 projects at any one time, loses £13 million a year by not stopping projects that are failing. It’s not always management’s responsibility to cancel projects: if you’re working on something that you know isn’t going to deliver the proposed benefits, you need to speak up. Quickly.

Keith Richards, one of the UK’s Agile experts, said, “If you are going to fail, fail fast.” Mistakes happen. Things go wrong. It is how you deal with it that counts. A project manager who makes mistakes and owns up to them early will find people willing to help to get things back on track.These projects are late at the beginning but tend to make up the time later.

A project manager who hides mistakes, crossing her fingers until the project is nearing its due date, will find that people will – for the most part – rally round to help get things back on track. But this will be because there is now little choice about pressing on. These projects are “on track” until near the end but then have been shown to take, overall, twice as long. So, own up to your mistakes, and put things right as soon as you can.

Provide an objective position

Not all projects are started from the basis of a competent idea.

If you can’t, remember that the project manager’s role is partly to direct the work and partly to provide an objective position on how the work is done – and that means suggesting stopping everything and starting again, or even not starting again, if necessary. Recommending that a project is closed can be a very positive action.

Late projects or closed projects can feel like professional failure. One way to deal with things that feel like they are going wrong at work is to have something outside of work that you care about, that helps put things in perspective. Carry out Murray’s Deathbed Test (named after a colleague from a previous job who had a very sensible outlook on life). Think forward to when you are old and dying. How will you complete the sentence, “I wish I had spent more time…”? I very much doubt the answer will be “completing my issue logs” or “updating my Gantt chart”. Work hard, be professional, but keep things in perspective.

Keeping things in perspective will stop you being afraid of challenging senior people.  Not all projects are started from the basis of a competent idea. If you know the project is going to fail, explain why it should be stopped: then it’s up to your sponsor to take the final decision to stop it.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.


    • Elizabeth says

      23 July, 2012 at 8:03 pm

      You’re right – people know they are working on something that can’t be saved, even if the official decision to close it has not been taken. That really does impact morale.

  1. Ivan Wainewright says

    23 July, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    I had to recommend stopping a considerable project in one of the first projects I ever managed. Definitely the right thing to do. I wrote a report on all the issues and to this day, the client (and I!) still refer to it on occasions to review whether new projects can learn from it.

    • Elizabeth says

      23 July, 2012 at 8:02 pm

      Ivan, it’s great that you managed to get something useful from the project after all. At least by salvaging lessons learned you can feel that the project closure helped other projects in the future.

  2. SueMayan says

    23 July, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Great article! Closing a bad project is not failure, but good common sense. If you take emotion and ego out, the decision becomes much easier!


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