Your Project has been Targeted for Termination - Now What?

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Categories: Project Management

Termination of a large active project is like undergoing root canal surgery - intellectually you may realize that you need to have it in order to avoid serious long term impacts but that does not help to reduce the trauma associated with the event.

The Kübler-Ross model of how individuals deal with traumatic situations is apropos when understanding the personal impacts of project termination. In the economic rollercoaster of the recent past, we have all likely experienced the fallout of having the plug pulled on a project into which we had invested significant blood, sweat and tears (whether as a project manager or a team member).

While we can acknowledge that the project team and stakeholders are going through these phases, a project manager needs to be able to guide the team through this challenging time in order to close out the project in a professional fashion.

With that in mind, how can project termination affect some key project closeout activities?

Operational Transition

Unless there were no useful deliverables produced over the project's lifetime, there is going to be the need to transition products, processes or services to an operational state.

The operational owners for these deliverables should have been identified up front during project planning and should be ready to receive these deliverables, but there may be the need to provide training or other knowledge transfer that was likely planned for a future date. There may also be multiple open project issues related to these deliverables that were also planned for future resolution. In both cases, additional activities may need to be completed to ensure that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water.

The effort, timelines and costs associated with this operational transition need to be estimated and this information needs to be presented to project sponsorship for approval so that the project team can proceed.

Contractual Closeout

The decision-making process leading up to project termination should have included an assessment of the costs or penalties associated with the early termination of open contracts. If it did not, this assessment needs to happen ASAP and vendor management or procurement may need to be engaged to assist with supplier negotiations. Once this has been done, termination clauses should be exercised and all open contracts can be closed out allowing the project team to finalize project financials.

Resource Evaluation, Recognition and Release

In some cases, resources are freed up from a terminated project to work on a higher priority project. This is the happiest of cases - in the worst of cases, termination in a projectized organization could result in resources being laid off. In both cases, it is crucial that the project manager effectively communicates with all team members, empathizes with affected team members and focuses on motivating the team to complete close out activities. This may require tangible or intangible incentives, pep talks, or one-on-one conversations to help the dissolving team stay on track.

While resource evaluation prior to release from projects is a good idea in any circumstance, it is even more important in the case of project termination to help resources with future performance evaluations (or job interviews).

Recognition is also important - although it may feel more like a wake than a celebration, there is morale-boosting value in organizing and holding a (modest) get together to recognize individual achievement.

Knowledge Capture

"We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success" - Samuel Smiles.

Project termination provides a unique opportunity to interview team members and stakeholders when they are most likely to be conscious of what could have been done in a different fashion. While it may seem akin to pouring salt in an open wound, this practice is a good way to ensure that lessons are truly getting learned.

While this is not an exhaustive list, your organization's project management methodology should include a checklist or guidance that covers the specific activities that need to occur when projects are terminated. 

(Note: this article was originally written and published by me in June 2009 on

Posted on: February 06, 2018 06:40 AM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Excellent pointers, Kiron, thanks.

I would additionally recommend a project team retrospective and the preparation of a stark set of lessons learnt.

As in everything, it doesn't matter how hard one falls, what matters is how soon one gets up and how fast one learns from one's mistakes.

That was so scary having RCT, most despised chair for me. LOL :)

It's either move on, move up, or move sideways. It's important especially for contractual staff to have some irons in the fire leading up to contract termination. Good post Kiron.

Thanks for the post, Kiron.

Thanks Sonali, Sante and Riyadh.

Thanks Karan - any time something major occurs, it's good to capture lessons.

Very good article. The climate where PM follows the procedures for closing the project is very difficult and dark. Thank you, Kiron.

Thanks Michail - our job is to shed a little light for our team on the dark, difficult times!


Very interesting and we do forget often to get proper closure on projects that have been cancelled for some reasons.

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