Project Practitioners > Why Bad Projects Are So Hard to Kill

Why Bad Projects Are So Hard to Kill

By Margaret de Haan


In my quest for additional strategies to manage my nightmare Projects, I have been reading and researching quite extensively and came across an article "Why Bad Projects Are So Hard to Kill" authored by Isabelle Royer published in the Harvard Business Review on Managing Projects, Ideas With Impact series published by the Harvard Business Press.  After reading it, I got a different perspective on one possible reason why organizations beat a dead horse over and over until they concede and shut down a project that is an obvious failure.  And I also attained some strategies to avoid having it happen to me.

After reading this, I realized that I have seen this in varying degrees over and over, but on an individual level, not yet on an organizational one.  I was recently on a project where after deployment of a completed series of interconnected systems there was a component switcher that was causing problems with some peripherals.  The strange thing was that not all of the peripherals were affected even though they were the same (different brand), so we went through a troubleshooting process to isolate what wasn’t the problem, and it kept coming back to the same switcher as the root cause.  We tried everything to go around it (replacing the peripherals with a different brand, adding signal boosters, testing the connections to name a few) and we tried to compensate for the failing but to no avail.  The system designer went as far as to say “I guarantee that it isn’t the switcher”.  This process took 3 months, and wasn’t going to let up.  We even went so far as to replace the switcher with a new unit that was exactly the same model, but we still had the same problem.  In this case it wasn’t the team but an individual that wasn’t going to admit defeat, but the concept is exactly the same, it was as Isabelle Royer calls a “belief in the inevitability of the project’s success”.  I see this as truly unwavering blind faith.

Isabelle Royer believes that the team can suffer from groupthink to the point where when they come across any information that may indicate that completion of the project is a bad choice because the results are no longer profitable or viable, they see it as a minor setback, regardless of how compelling that data may be.  Another major point in the article is that “collective belief” leads to irrationality, team members see things through rose colored glasses and act based on what they think the facts are resulting in a perpetuation of bad results.  A direct quote from the article:

“Collective belief arises because individual belief s often contagious, particularly when it reinforces others perceptions and desires.  When that is the case, the belief can spread easily among the various decision makers who control a project’s fate”

“Why Bad Projects Are So hard to Kill” by Isabelle Royer

Harvard Business Review on Managing Projects

Harvard Business Press, 2005


So what does Isabelle suggest?  There are quite a few things that can be put in place to avoid impending project disaster.  First, beware of cheerleading squads.  If there is no diversification in the team members you are at a greater risk of groupthink than if the team members have different reasons for inclusion.  Second, purposely put a skeptic on the team.  Implementing this will allow for checks and balances so that certain proof of expected results will be required at certain stages of the project.  A skeptic should not be a naysayer or have the sole goal of killing the project, but someone with healthy doubt is a great thing to balance the team.  This is a good way to make sure that the project doesn’t go too far with time and money investments without the results remaining to be relevant.  The third and most interesting suggestion is to have an “exit champion” on the team.  I see this as an extreme variation on the skeptic, someone who is very strong, fearless and highly credible that can step in and kill the project if it needs to die.  This person has to have guts and a thick skin, as they will be responsible for swimming uphill against the current of the rest of the team, and they certainly won’t be popular.


After absorbing this article, I gained a much different perspective; I have always looked for team members to “get with the program” and get it done.  In the current state of business chaos, I now have better appreciation for slowing down and making sure that results are not only of high quality, but continue to meet current needs, and add relative value to the earned value.  I’m going to make a much bigger effort from now on, as a Manager of people, to have more patience and slow things down, so that when someone is willing to go against the team, they have the opportunity to voice concerns and be heard.  

Related Links
Need help deciding whether, or how, to kill a troubled project? Try our Project Cancellation Guidelines. Make sure to file a Lessons Learned report when it's all over, so others can avoid the same problems in the future. Kimberly Wiefling shares her thoughts on the Six Hats project managers should wear on their projects.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

I have seen a few of these 'bad' projects and they are the hardest things to kill. Actually you might kill them but they seem to have more lives than cats. I do like the 'exit champion' strategy though. The hardest part is being a team member and watching the lead PM trying to push the project.

Margaret, this reminds me of "The Elephant in the Room". It is huge, heavy, rather smelly but quietly standing in the corner of the room. Absolutely no one is allowed to mention it. It is the organisational equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes.

It might be the FD’s pet project; the Chairman’s ego trip; the chancellor’s day dream of a building named after him; the CIO’s desire to keep his team gainfully employed or a Member of Parliament trying to make a mark.

Read "The Elephant in the Room" here

There is no doubt that the root cause of the continuation of futile projects is politics and posturing. I just hope that this post helps us all as PMs to listen better to the whistleblower. We need to focus on doing what is best for the organization as a whole, even if that means shutting it down. Thanks for the input!

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