Knowing When to STOP a Project – The #1 Leadership Skill

Knowing When to STOP a Project – The #1 Leadership Skill
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Knowing When to STOP a Project
Based upon feedback from thousands of project postmortem participants, the number one project management skill most requested by project teams is knowing when to STOP a project!  When project parameters shift, effective project leaders and project teams STOP the project and regroup!

Why It is Hard to Stop a Project After It Has Started
For a myriad of reasons, leaders typically do not like to stop a project after it has been kicked off.  Not wanting to waste previous investments and efforts, most leaders admit to believing that almost any obstacle can be overcome if the project team just works hard enough — regardless of the circumstances, risks, or comparative value of the project.

But smart leaders know that under performing projects should be proactively looked at with more scrutiny and that saying “yes” all the time is a recipe for disaster.

The Balance of Speed and Reflection
Managing a complex and highly visible project can feel like walking a tightrope without being able to slow down.  Internal and external pressures to deliver faster, better, and cheaper results can push the best project teams to make unnecessary project mistakes and to prolong an under performing project.

Use the Iron Triangle
You need to keep on track while trying to juggle the three parameters of the project management iron triangle

  • Cost / Budget
  • Quality/Scope
  • Time / Schedule

Various stakeholders often have competing needs. When you conduct your project postmortem, be sure you don’t have to list “we never strategically adjusted” as your big mistake. This could spell a big “zero” for your project and threaten your career.

Knowing When to STOP a Project
Here is how to adjust when ANY project budget, scope, resources, or timing parameters shift: STOP!  It is actually that simple.  The difficult part is knowing when and how to STOP a project in a way that makes sense for your stakeholders, culture, and strategy.

The Best Project Teams Ruthlessly Manage Expectations
The best project teams:

  1. Recognize
    Recognize key strategy and project inflection points and invest the time and resources necessary to identify the implications with all key stakeholders before marching forward.  Remember to formally and frequently test your hypotheses, track leading success metrics, and explicitly agree to continue, pivot, or pause.
  2. Adjust
    Adjust project definitions, plans, and execution strategies before doing more work or throwing more resources at a problem.  Avoid the sunk cost bias – a decision making trap where project teams make decisions in a way that justifies past choices regardless of their current validity.
  3. Reflect
    Researchers at Harvard found that reflection boosts performance by 23 percent.  In a nutshell, reflection helps people learn how to do it better next time.

    We define reflection at work as the purposeful and explicit process of assessing past assumptions, actions, behaviors, outcomes, implications, and beliefs in order to move forward in a more meaningful and thoughtful way.

The Bottom Line
Stopping a project often means figuring out acceptable trade-offs or making major concessions with powerful stakeholders. That is OK. The key is getting and keeping everyone on the same page with the new plan instead of just working harder or faster without properly regrouping with the team or project sponsors.  Remember, hope and avoidance are not strong project leadership strategies.

If you liked learning about the importance of STOPPING a project, download 5 Steps to Align Project Teams to Pull in the Same Direction

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