Nine Lame Excuses for Not Killing Projects

It’s still common practice not to kill non-productive projects. In 2019, managers must still be aware of these nine lame excuses not to stop projects and be sensitive not to overload their organisation.

The Harvard Business Review article about root causes of project overload reminded me why organisations lose money. As my own doctoral research shows, one of the most common causes of money waste is too many projects for the resources available in a company. The immediate solution to the problem of scarce resources may sound quite apparent: Just put some of your projects on hold! It doesn’t require any special tooling or expensive consultancy. In practice, project professionals have more and more projects assigned to them. This results in overloaded employees and decreased output.

I’d like to cite Robert Cooper, the innovation thought leader. His discoveries are now implemented by companies in North America, Europe, and Asia, including 3M, ABB, BASF, Bosch-Siemens, Carlsberg, and Caterpillar. Dr. Cooper and his colleagues have investigated the main reasons why organisations keep doomed projects alive. Let’s find out if these excuses not to kill projects are still relevant by comparing them to the situation in the project management arena today.

#1 The Need to Get Anything to Market

Sometimes C-level management just desperately needs to get anything to market. Partially, this sense of urgency is driven by the product life cycle. This phenomenon was already described by Levitt in 1965. However, over the years the product life cycle has become shorter as the drive to bring any product update to market has become more urgent.

#2 Sunk Cost Reasoning

It’s difficult to kill a project when you’ve spent a lot of money and energy on it. But do you want to lose more money? Companies still have trouble cutting their losses. Research published in Psychology and Aging (2016) revealed that younger employees in particular are willing to stick to a failing project plan.

#3 “We’ve Almost Found The Way!”

Sometimes, projects get stuck on technical obstacles. It requires real maturity to see the early signs of project failure and kill a project to prevent further loss of time and resources. More than half of respondents to Wellingtone’s 2018 survey on the state of project management expressed dissatisfaction with the project portfolio management maturity in their companies. According to Wellingtone, the level of dissatisfaction increased from 45% in 2016 to 56% in 2018. 

#4 CEO’s “Pet” Projects

These are the projects to which senior management is especially committed. Pet projects usually have poor track records and high failure rates. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Rose Hollister and Michael D. Watkins suggest that adding projects to the portfolio without proper funding and staffing is a root cause of project overload.

#5 No Better Projects in The Portfolio  

The scarcity of great product ideas indicates poor alignment between business objectives and the projects and programs the company brings in. Only 41% of organizations with an enterprise-wide project management office report high alignment with the organization’s strategy.

#6 No Mechanism to Kill Projects

Many companies don’t have an effective mechanism to justify terminating a project. To notice early signs of project failure, you should use project management tools that show real-time KPIs. As of 2018, only 22% of companies used a project or resource management software solution to track real-time KPIs. The previously mentioned Harvard Business Review article supports this, stating that companies don’t have mechanisms to measure and manage the load across the organisation; they lack the right tooling.

#7 Lack of Portfolio Management

Without portfolio management, companies are missing a high-level overview of all projects in the portfolio. Today, the market is full of project management tools, but lots of organisations find them too complex to implement. Moreover, 46% of PMO directors surveyed by the Project Management Institute in 2017 felt their organizations didn’t fully understand the value of project management.

#8 Can’t Refuse Key Customers

It’s difficult to say no to your key clients unless you can back up your refusal with a solid justification. With the right tool supporting predictive analytics, it’s not a problem to show your customer that the project is doomed, and why. A Project Success Survey conducted by PwC revealed that only 25% of organisations use project management tools.

#9 It’s Just Difficult to Say No

Finally, it’s just difficult to turn somebody down in fear of upsetting the relationship. Even if you see that proceeding with a project is a dead-end road. However, if you have a clear view of your resource load, it’s easier to say no if a project simply does not fit. Seeing the whole picture makes it easier for senior managers to make tough decisions. According to the 2017 KPMG Project Management Survey, only 21% of projects consistently deliver on their benefits.

Conclusion

Over the years, we’ve become more agile and more flexible, adapting ourselves to the dynamics of our environment. This certainly has a positive effect on killing non-productive projects. On the other side, the influx of projects is also increasing. So do we kill enough of them? Evidence suggests that it’s still common practice not to kill non-productive projects. In 2019, managers must still be aware of these nine lame excuses not to kill projects and be sensitive not to overload their organisation.

Wellingtone’s survey showed something else staggering. Although more effort and budget is being spent on PMO activities, companies are getting more dissatisfied with their project maturity: from 45% in 2016 to 56% in 2018. Companies are not even able to see their overload. This trend has to stop!

Albert Ponsteen

Albert Ponsteen

Albert Ponsteen is a Dutch scientist with deep knowledge of project management based on more than 25 years of experience. He has contributed his research expertise to Epicflow, an online PM tool.

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