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Once you have decided that a project needs to slow down, pause, or stop, there are various activities to carry out. Some activities apply in all cases, but some only apply to the specific decision that you have made. Let’s start with those that apply to everything:

  • Decision validation. All decision makers with any responsibility for the project need to be both consulted and, ideally, in agreement with the decision. It is always worth a double-check.
  • Next step clarity. As you start to communicate to both decision makers and the wider audience there will be questions and challenges about the decision. Prepare for these as much as possible in advance. Be clear on the rationale for the decision and the specific steps that you will take to slow down, pause, or stop the project. Understand any dependencies and expect to be asked what the impact on the organisation, individuals, external businesses, or suppliers will be.
  • Communication. Every organisation is different but a logical order is normally to tell the project team and the governance committees first (Steering Committee, Programme Board, etc.), followed by any impacted staff and business areas, followed by suppliers or external businesses that are dependent upon you. Communication should be quick so that, ideally, everyone who needs to know finds out on the same day. Don’t forget to communicate the reasons for the decision and next steps, as well as the decision itself.
  • Sensitivity. Individuals may feel a sense of disappointment or loss if a project is paused or stops, whether they are staff members, contractors, or suppliers. For some, this may also be a loss of role or a loss of income. Bear this in mind when communicating the news.

Then there are the activities that are dependent on the decision that you have taken.

Slowing Down

“Slowing down” in this context is where a project has to continue but needs to accommodate a reduction in funding and/or resources. If the project needs to slow down quickly it is unlikely that it will be possible to do a detailed analysis and full re-planning. The project manager and project team need to make some quick assessments focused on resource productivity, deadline criticality, scope, and quality.

Slowing down may not mean delaying deliverables. Ask first whether it is possible to achieve the same short-medium term outputs with fewer resources, allowing the project to continue with the same scope, deadlines, and quality. If that is not possible, the 3 levers in the project management armoury are:

  1. Deadlines – extend the project to smooth the workload
  2. Scope – reduce the scope to focus resource/funding on key areas
  3. Quality – don’t “gold-plate” deliverables when minimum viable product would be sufficient

Deadline extension is often the simplest solution. If deadlines cannot be extended, then decrease the scope; if the scope cannot be decreased, then focus on minimum viable product. If discrete scope items – or even discrete workstreams – are removed this helps reduces the need for detailed re-planning. However, any changes agreed will require a revision of the project documentation on resources, timelines, and scope. This must all be done with internal and external project dependencies in mind.

Pausing or Stopping a Project

A “paused” project will restart in the short to medium term; a “stopped” project will not restart. When you pause or stop a project carry out the following steps:

  • Record the decision formally with the appropriate governance bodies
  • Pay any final invoices, cancel purchase orders, etc.
  • Bring all documentation up to date, particularly the project plan, status reports, RAID logs, RACI matrix, and contact details of project team members (including external suppliers)
  • Collate all documents – including relevant emails, which can be specific to an individual – in a single, common location that is accessible to all relevant parties and ensure that the location is widely known
  • Perform a “lessons learned” analysis, if time allows, to feed in to your project or governance framework

Some of these actions may seem irrelevant for a project that is being stopped, but it is often the case that projects resurface in a different guise and it can be useful to have historic project information available.

In addition, for a paused project:

  • Create a “start up log” that identifies the initial actions that will need to be undertaken to get the project re-started
  • Diarise a fortnightly/monthly reminder to check project status in preparation for the restart

Our next article focuses on speedy restart and we will expand further on the “start up log” and contents.

Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where, for reasons outside of our control, there are not sufficient resources or finances to support a project or projects. This can be for a variety of reasons including cost restriction, resource availability, or changes in prioritisation. In this situation, decisions have to be made about the continuing viability of the project(s) in the short, medium, and long term. The decisions should take in to account the impact on the organisation as a whole, clients, staff, and external partners.

There are normally 4 options:

  • Continue with the project at the current speed if resources and/or funding can be found
  • Slow down the project by reducing resources and/or available funding
  • Pause the project completely for an agreed period before restarting it in future
  • Stop the project completely

To make these decisions quickly we use a 2-stage approach:

  1. Assess each project against a set of simple criteria and, where there are multiple projects, use a scoring mechanism to help with prioritisation (there is a list of criteria at the bottom of this article which, while not exhaustive, should be helpful)
  2. Once projects are prioritised, assess their ongoing viability and benefits against available resources and funding

As part of this consider whether it is possible to combine projects, share resources, reduce deliverables, or extend milestones. The end product should be a list of projects that are split into those that need to continue, those that can slow down or pause, and those that can stop. There may be grey areas so 2-3 iterations through the assessment is sometimes required. And do not be afraid to stop projects completely. Sometimes projects are only viable for a certain period and a previously strong business case may not survive a long delay. Difficult though the decision might be, particularly if significant investment has already been made (the “sunk cost fallacy”), sometimes stopping a project is the most beneficial thing that an organisation can do.

Working out which category your project should be in is the first step. Our next article will cover how to slow down, pause, or stop safely – with examples.

Assessment Criteria

  1. Is there a regulatory deadline or requirement that must be met?
  2. Is this project required to keep the business operating (e.g. replacement of a failing system, operational restructure)?
  3. Does this project provide any competitive advantage in the short, medium or long term?
  4. Does the project impact clients?
  5. Does the project impact staff or external partners?
  6. Is this project still viable if there is a delay or pause?
  7. Will the project cost be significantly increased if there is a delay or pause?
  8. Can there be a reduction or change in the scope of the project?
  9. Is there a risk of financial loss to the organisation?
  10. Is there the potential for reputational impact?

I am in the dawn of my career, therefore I have a couple of years of experience and a couple of qualifications under my belt. You could say I’m equally (un)qualified in both. So what have I learnt so far? Principally, no project will ever run as smoothly as your qualifications would lead you to believe.

This doesn’t weaken the value of the qualifications I’ve achieved. For me, they serve as a reminder of the solution I should be aiming for, even though running the perfect project is up there with the likelihood I’ll be struck by lightning or win the lottery. In reality, we don’t live in an ideal world and even a perfect framework cannot plan for every possibility. It would be a waste of time to try.

My experiences so far have taught me things I would never have been able to learn from a book. In my opinion, these are the most important learning events that will make me a great Project Manager. Having said this, I cannot downplay what I did learn from books. My qualifications serve as my lifebelt when drowning in work. From my studies, I remember that even in the most unique situation, there is always a method to apply to the madness. It’s my second sense of logic when my brain is in over its head.

Often the range of experience on a team is what makes it great. It brings together skills and knowledge gained in different parts of the industry. This allows projects to benefit from the shared experience of the whole team. If experience is why we succeed, qualifications are how we succeed. They are the common ground which helps a team come together. I benefit from both my qualifications and my colleagues’ experience – in all being able to speak the same language, even when it doesn’t feel like it! In Projecting, we have a vast pool of knowledge and experience that I can call on.

A good project manager is not just made from how many acronyms they can remember to apply to a project, nor only from how many times they’ve been around the block, but I have learnt that one without the other is insufficient. Qualifications give me confidence that I am moving in the right direction; experience is the comfort in knowing I can overcome whatever obstacles that direction may bring, and that sweet spot right between the two is where the magic happens!