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When the Project Gets Shelved

~ By Brad Egeland

Red stop sign hold on a minute

Here's the scenario I want to put out there to all of you. You're moving forward on a project that is going well. At least it seems that way from your perspective and your team's perspective. And as far as you've been aware up to this point in the project, your customer has been very satisfied and has no issues with you as a project manager, anyone on your project team, or the progress and status of the project up to this point.

Now consider this - your project sponsor/customer calls you suddenly and says that something has come up and he needs to put the project on hold for two months. How do you react? What actions do you take? What questions do you ask? And what about your team? You have project resources allocated but you can't keep them around forever. And if you let them go now, how do you get them back in two months when your project customer is ready to restart the effort?

From your customer's perspective this is hopefully just a temporary pause in the project. But from your perspective it is so much more. You have so many things to consider and nearly all will affect your ability to deliver a workable end solution, your ability to stay on schedule once the project restarts, and your ability to stay reasonably on budget given the fact you may be forced to onboard and educate new project team members when the project restarts. This is not a good situation.

The bottom line is you're not going to let something like this be a showstopper. The delivery organisation just doesn't do that. You can make anything happen - at least that's the attitude you need to have when responding to the customer. Tell them you'll make it work and then figure it out behind the scenes, right?

Here is what I propose as a three-step approach to news like this from your project client:

Find Out What Changed

Your project customer can tell you they are going to only put the project on hold for two months and that may indeed be the case. But we've all heard so many optimistic statements of funding from clients and potential clients that have never panned out - am I right? I've heard two in just the past three weeks. So it's ok to be skeptical - it's healthy, actually. What you and your team need to find out is what has changed. What, on the customer side, has changed that is instigating this pause in the project? Understanding this will help you and your team better plan for how the project will restart, if requirements may also be changing and it will help you in the next step I'm about to discuss - figuring out what you think from past experience is a reasonable restart window. Is it really going to be just two months?

Determine Reasonable Restart Window

The best thing you can do is listen. And of course ask some questions. By listening and asking questions together with your past customer experience you can often get a good feeling of whether it's really going to be two months or possibly six months or longer. Really discuss this at length with the project customer. Help them to understand that it's very important for the success of the project and the retention of most or all of the current project resources to understand what the "real" restart window of the project might be.

Strategize Your Resources

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - you'll need to strategize the usage of your resources. Whether it's a two-week restart window, a two-month restart window, or perhaps even longer, you'll need to figure out how what you're going to do with your current project team. The ideal is to keep them, of course. But no one in leadership in your company is going to let you retain idle resources for two months. And once they're re-assigned to other projects - even temporarily - it may be difficult to get them back when your project restarts. It's a big risk for the ultimate success of your project, so you'll want to keep your client aware of this and make sure that you remain in the loop on any news on their end concerning how, when and where the project will restart…because it may not be something you can accomplish on the spot.


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