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4 Signs to Pull Over and Stop a Project

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Have you ever seen the award-winning movie Rush? In it, Austrian Niki Lauda, Formula One World Champion racing driver, lectured fellow competitor from England, James Hunt, on risk management. Mr. Lauda states that he manages to a risk factor of 20 percent; any conditions that produced risk over this factor could lead to a deadly accident. At the last race of the season, Mr. Lauda pulls over in a rainstorm as he feels there is too much risk. While this action hands the top prize to Mr. Hunt, Mr. Lauda is unrepentant in his action to pull off the road. He goes on to win more racing world championships than Mr. Hunt.

Projects are like racecars -- both are complicated and exist in environments where there are many moving parts. That's why, as with a race, knowing when to put the brakes on a project will be best in the long-run. Here are four warning signs that you need to pull over:

  1. Accumulated issues with no path to resolution. It is common that during the course of a project, we capture and determine a path to resolution for issues. This path can sometimes involve an escalation to a higher level of leadership. However, if the project has incurred multiple issues where a path to resolution cannot be determined, it has reached a point where these issues will impair both current and upcoming project activities.  
  2. Unstaffed key or multiple roles. We're all challenged to find the right level and skill fit of resources for our project teams in a timely manner. For some specialized skills, it may take weeks to find the right kind of resource, which is why many project managers now build staffing lead time into their project plans. But when a project has either key or multiple roles unfilled, typically three to four weeks beyond their planned staffing date, it will start to cause a drag on the project. This drag occurs from tasks that are due to start with no resources available to do the work. 
  3. Lack of sponsorship. I have experienced unplanned exits of project sponsors for a variety of different reasons. I have also experienced project sponsors that are not willing to sponsor anything about a project. In both of these cases, you need to find a new project sponsor, fast. Without a sponsor, a project will not have the key decision-maker needed to guide its long-term course. While the typical remedy is just to keep working on the project, an unfilled sponsor role is setting your project up for a lack of attention and visibility within an organization -- and ultimate failure.
  4. Unclear or fluctuating success criteria. A project must have a clearly understood set of success criteria. However, changes in project sponsorship, business conditions and other internal/external factors can sometimes cause major changes in the success factors of a project. If any of the success criteria change, it is a good time to pause the project. Based on the new success criteria, work with the project leadership team to re-plan the activities, schedule, resources and budget for the project.
We are typically judged by the amount of progress we make as well as the outcomes from our projects. But we should also be judged on our ability to cease projects when the level of risk is too high. Although it might seem like a sign of weakness, stopping and re-directing a project incurring too much risk can reduce the potential overall cost and preserve its value proposition.

Under what conditions have you had to stop a project due to too much risk? 

 

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