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With over 40 years of project management experience I can’t help but conclude that despite the fact that projects are supposed to be finite efforts, there are some projects that will never die. After a while they take on a life of their own even though no one remembers why the project is being done. It has become institutional. With the exception of those projects all projects follow a cycle of birth, maturation, and death just like any biological process or product life cycle. Up to the time of their birth (a.k.a. approval) projects are in a planning phase when the decision to undertake the project is made. Throughout their maturation phase (a.k.a. execution) projects are subject to change due mostly to random events whose likelihood was hopefully anticipated and planned but whose occurrence cannot be predicted. For all complex projects that maturation process includes the discovery, learning, and integration of functions and features into the solution. At some point in time the solution is deemed complete for the time and cost invested. The end of the project signals its death when the deliverables are produced and the project is completed successfully or acceptable deliverables are not produced and the project fails. Project success is measured by the deliverables having produced acceptable business value.
This is all well and good but the realities are often quite different. Are there active projects in your organization that are active only because their sponsor had the power and leverage to get them approved? If there ever was a valid business reason for the project, it is long since disappeared but the project hasn’t. Terminating a project is difficult especially because of the impact on the sponsor and the reputation of the client.
Declaring a project a failure and then terminating it is often not as clear a decision as one might think. Failure is a temporal decision. Take for example the case of the sticky note. The project that produced the glue was declared a failure because the glue did not have the physical properties needed. The project results sat on the shelf for over 7 years until an application for the glue was identified - result the Post-It Note. So one man’s failure may be another man’s success. If the project was to cure melanoma and instead delivered a successful tanning lotion that totally prevented sunburn, was the project a success or a failure? I mention this to you so that you will be cautious because in the complex project world failure is very difficult to define.