Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 17;   April 25, 2001: Restarting Projects

Restarting Projects

by

When a project gets off track, we sometimes cancel it. But since canceling projects takes a lot of courage, we look for ways to save them if we can. Often, things do turn out OK, and at other times they don't. There's a third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it. We can restart.

Sometimes projects get stuck. They stratify; they stall. We cancel them if we can, but often we press on, hoping for the best. Since we can't always tell which project elements led to the problems, we often try to preserve the very elements that caused the stalls, and eventually the project ends in disappointment or even outright failure. Usually, we get something like what we wanted, but the experience is unsatisfying.

A third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it, is restarting. Restarting means halting, assessing what we have, reorganizing, reassigning, repartitioning responsibility, replanning, re-envisioning. It's energizing, and it can be painful.

Icelandic currentsWhen you restart, put everything on the table. Introduce new leadership, new team structures, new plans - even a new vision. Restarting a project creates turbulence. And that's exactly why it works. To learn why, let's take a trip to the North Atlantic.

Iceland lies in the path of the Gulf Stream. As branches of the Gulf Stream sweep past, they spin off huge eddies that warm the island. Meanwhile, the Greenland Current, as cold as the Gulf Stream is warm, creates its own eddies as it sweeps down from the North. Where the two systems collide, they create broad vortices that bring nutrients up from the ocean bottom. These nutrients support a rich marine ecology that has made the people of Iceland wealthy.

In Nature, living systems thrive on turbulence. Turbulence disrupts stratification, increasing the exchange of material between ecological subsystems. Restarting a project
creates turbulence.
And that's exactly
why it works.
By providing resources to every element of an ecological system, turbulence keeps that system vital.

Restarting a project creates turbulence. Restarting is the project's Greenland Current meeting the project's Gulf Stream. A project is a candidate for a restart if:

  • It has a history of repeated schedule slips or budget overruns.
  • Its failure or cancellation would be a threat to the enterprise.
  • There is no clear consensus about a path to success.

Three keys to successful restarts:

Train before you try
Learning about restarting while you're restarting is like having a driving lesson on the freeway at 5 PM on a Friday afternoon. Restart projects with care - it can be dangerous.
Avoid blaming
Some people who are displaced might think of themselves as being held responsible for the problem. Typically, they aren't responsible. Unblocking sometimes requires new faces to achieve turbulence. Communicate clearly that a systemic problem, not a personal one, caused the blockage.
Get help
If your organization has never restarted projects before, get some help for the first one or two. There's a lot to learn.

Just as the Gulf Stream and the Greenland Current stir up nutrients to support the Icelandic marine ecology, restarting a project can support the ecology of ideas that re-invigorates the project and puts it back on the path to success. Go to top Top  Next issue: Make a Project Family Album  Next Issue

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See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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