Put a positive spin on pulling the plug

In a previous job at a large refining company, IT director Bob Ghirlanda spent a year putting together a plan to install a computerized maintenance management system. With the system specifications and ROI analysis in place, Ghirlanda went to work implementing the project. Then things started to go wrong.

Executives had selected software that seemed to fit their corporate goals, but it wasn’t the right software for the company’s technology needs. Faced with growing concerns, the company’s CIO decided to cancel the project, and Ghirlanda agreed with this decision. “We could not assure corporate leadership that the project would be a success,” he said.

In these days of economic uncertainty, cancelled projects are a fact of life. Although it’s never a pleasant experience, it doesn’t have to be a debilitating career setback for an IT project manager. The key is how you handle the cancellation. Here’s some advice from those who have been there on how to survive after the plug is pulled.

Don’t take it personally. “Most of the time, it’s not that the team was doing things badly,” said Jeff Chasney, CIO at US$3 billion CKE Restaurants Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif. Chasney characterizes himself as a “turnaround CIO” who is often hired to make changes in troubled IT organizations. He said he has cancelled at least 12 major projects in the past few years – including the one Ghirlanda was working on. “Better than 50 per cent were because the company was changing direction,” he said. “In other cases, it was the right project at the wrong time, or it didn’t match the organization’s culture.”

Treat it as a completion. Do the things you would after a successful completion. “It’s really important that the project manager does the regular closeout activities,” said Karen White, director of resource management at Project Management Solutions Inc., a consulting, training and research company in Havertown, Pa. As both a consultant and an internal project manager, she has been through several project cancellations in her career.

“Close the files in an orderly way, do the team awards and lessons learned,” White said. “You need to recognize that there’s a grief period and help the team through it – and still have the ending celebration to say, ‘We took our best shot.’ This is important for team morale.”

Make sure the team isn’t blamed. “Both the project manager and the project’s business sponsor need to make sure the team is not labelled as a failure,” White said. For instance, a major project White was working on at a financial services company was cancelled when the firm was acquired.

“We made sure the team got awards and recognition and bonuses,” she said. “It wasn’t their fault the corporation was sold.”

Keep your eye out for the next project. “A project can always be cancelled, so it’s important to keep networking,” Ghirlanda said. White advises project managers to keep their skills and certifications current. “Don’t always have lunch with your project team – eat with other folks from your company as well,” she counsels. In effect, White said, “you’re always interviewing.”

Learn from it. “I look for whether people have learned the lessons of a cancelled project,” Chasney said. For instance, he said, if a project was cancelled because of spiralling expenses, “I expect to see far more diligence and for them to be watching the budget numbers more closely.”

In some cases, the company and the project manager are simply a bad fit. That’s the conclusion Ghirlanda reached after his maintenance project was one of a whole suite cancelled by the refining company. About a year later, he began looking for other opportunities, and he’s now a reliability systems planning manager at Eastman Kodak Co. Of his old firm, Ghirlanda said, “It became clear they weren’t going to invest the resources in IT projects.”