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Stop! Who Needs the Power to Stop a Project?

In some mind training methodologies there is a Stop exercise in which The aim is to immediately stop whatever you’re doing and freeze in that position, mentally, emotionally and physically, so that you can observe your current inner state. 

Project Momentum

There are projects that once they begin continue on like a snowball rolling down a snow covered hill.  The project builds momentum, increasing in terms of the time, effort and money that are continuously absorbed by it.  The greater the spend; the harder it is for the project to stop or change direction.

This may be fine if the project is of value and if the work is being done effectively so as to achieve the desired value.  Momentum carries the project to completion.

If, however, 1) the project is not adding value, perhaps because conditions have changed or the initial value proposition was incorrect, 2) if the project is headed in a wrong direction, or 3) it is not in compliance with policies rules, regulations and best practices then the project should be stopped.

In healthy organizations there are two types of people or groups that can stop a project.  The first is the sponsor, client or steering group and the second is a expert group or individual who is charged with making sure the project is going in the right direction and is complying with policies, regulations and best practices. 

When the sponsor, client or steering group stops the project it is usually stopped for good – “killed” or postponed until higher priority work is completed.  When an expert, architecture group or other gatekeeper stops a project it is often not a kill or postponement.  It is a pause during which the conditions that caused the stoppage are understood and cleared and the project set on course again. 

Of course stopping a project is risky, particularly if you are not an executive or client.  In some environments there is a process definition that allows for projects to be stopped by technical experts and project managers.  In many of these there is an unwritten rule – never do it, even if it should be done.  It’s just too political; someone will hate you for it.  In other environments, there is no provision in the process for anyone to stop a project.  In either case, projects become like undying vampires sucking the blood form the organization.

Stop the Line

In quality manufacturing cultures workers can stop the assembly line when they see something wrong. In the Toyota Production System Jidoka is one of two main pillars.  It means that people or machines can stop production lines in the event of problems such as equipment malfunction, quality issues, or late work. Jidoka helps prevent the passing of defects, helps identify and correct problem areas using localization and isolation, and makes it possible to “build” quality at the production process.

We need to apply this principle to project work.

Stopping a project for technical or quality reasons as opposed to business reasons a project does not mean killing it is a radical move since it means having project personnel stop work and thereby delay progress on the project. If they are full time the budget is affected; the meter is running.

Why would anyone want to do that?  The answer is simple; to draw attention to something serious and make sure it is addressed quickly.

For example, in a technology based project a group responsible for making sure that security and other operational standards are met needs the power to get the project manager or others to deliver information and sit for technical reviews early in project life.  Short of the ability to stop the project the review group often lacks the ability to get a resistant PM to cooperate or to take negative findings seriously.

How do we overcome the cultural and personal barriers to doing this?  We make sure that everyone understands their responsibility to say something if they see something.  We include appropriate gates in the project.  We make sure that people are not afraid of repercussions if they take their responsibility to heart and actually pull the emergency stop chord.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.