The harsh reality of project restarts and interruptions

One of the major causes of both cost and time overruns on IT projects is project restarts and for every 100 projects that start, there are 94 restarts. That’s according to a Chaos Report prepared by the Standish Group, a research advisory organisation that focuses on software project performance. But it is important to note that this does not mean that 94 out of 100 projects will be restarted, some projects can have several restarts.

Tony McManus, MD of McManus Consulting, says that project restarts routinely happen when there is a change in project manager or sponsor, a restructure within the company or the project has gone off the rails and the decision is taken to stop, replan and restart. A project is also likely to be restarted when it has been deprioritized, which typically happens when there is restructuring within the organisation.

Unfortunately, the project manager is often the first casualty when a project is not going according to the project sponsor’s expectations. But changing the project manager poses a major risk to the project and must be managed very carefully. The best case scenario is for the outgoing and incoming project managers to work side by side for a while, and to create security for both the business and the PMs by having a standard two month transition clause in PMs’ contracts. Overlap during the transition period may result in duplicate costs but, if it doesn’t happen, it can exacerbate the very problem that led to the change in the first place.

When the restart is due to the project having gone off the rails it often comes down to poor scope management. This results in a significant change management issue; team members are traumatised and demoralised and, at this point, there is a very real risk of losing key subject experts.

Mitigating project interruption is one of the project manager’s key responsibilities, and biggest headaches. The cause of project interruption can be diverse and often difficult to preempt like the team simply being burned out due to unrealistic demands or suppliers removing equipment from the site because of unpaid invoices. And, of course, there’s also the harsh reality inherent in IT projects: technology changes so quickly that 18 months into implementation of the project the rules can change completely.

One thing though is certain: project restarts are part of the project management landscape and – like so much in project management – it’s wise to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Here’s how to minimise the negative impact of project interruptions and restarts?

  • Make sure there’s a comprehensive business case, linked to a clear business strategy, for the project.
  • Make sure the project has the right sponsor.
  • Make sure that the project steering committee is made of up the relevant decision makers.
  • Make sure that every phase and stage of the project is comprehensively documented – the successful restart of a project is largely dependent on the shutdown procedure.

© Tony McManus, McManus Consulting.