When to stop a project

If  “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do,” as Michael Porter famously said in a seminal HBR article, then the essence of execution is truly not doing it. That sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly hard for organizations to kill existing initiatives.’ HBR Too Many Projects

 What’s been going on in the last few months is a colossal disruption to strategies, plans to execute strategies and executing strategies.  As a 30th May 2020, Economist article, Lonely Planet, says, ‘The old rules have gone out of the window’ and new strategies are being developed and implemented but in an unfamiliar and unknown context.  The article is discussing the hotel, airline, tourism industries, saying ‘the shape of sectors from restaurants to hotels and luxury goods (which are often bought while people are on holiday), will depend on what tourism looks like when it is allowed to resume. Hotels and airlines are using the upheaval as an opportunity to rework how they function. Families are rethinking how and where they can safely take their holidays. Many of the changes will last only until a vaccine for covid-19 appears. But some will stick. How people start to travel in 2020—or 2021—will shape how they travel for years thereafter.’

The article describes the travel, hotel and tourism industry as ranging from ‘the abysmal to the apocalyptic’.  Industry leaders are trying to work with priorities such as, ‘making things easier to clean and reducing touchpoints that will change the economics of providing travel services’.  Other changes include what ‘Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s boss, calls travel redistribution: people taking trips to out-of-the-way places rather than the usual metropolises.’  Or ‘Even more striking, many people booking properties within 50 miles (80km) of where they live, with the majority within 200 miles. Being able to drive home is useful if lockdown conditions change suddenly.’

The Economist article points out that, ‘Not all these changes will be universal. People have diverse tastes, different reasons to travel and varying appetites for risk. … the in-flight experience may change much less in the long term. … Crucial things—such as the middle seat on airplanes—will not disappear. Airlines are clear that it would destroy their business model, which requires around two-thirds of seats to be filled to make a profit.  Observant travellers will notice tweaks.’

Not all industries and sectors are as massively disrupted as travel, hotel and tourism but many are operating in similar conditions of uncertainty.    This uncertainty means making choices and decisions on which existing projects to continue with which to stop altogether, which to put on hold, which to rein in and which to continue.  (It also means determining what projects to initiate and how to switch/allocate resources to do that).

There are no easy answers, but I was asked to provide formal guidance for people in the OD & D arena trying to make decisions on pre-Covid 19 projects – what criteria should inform their advice on whether to stop, hold, rein in, continue projects that were in hand.   What came out of my research and thinking about the situation is this:



Thoughtful and sensitive management of organisational change projects supports an organisation’s business performance, enables their staff to work safely, helps enhance the organisational reputation and makes the organisation a good place to work.

During this period of covid-19 uncertainty, project managers and key stakeholders need to carefully consider:

  • The criteria for stopping or pausing a planned change project (and by implication the criteria for continuing with it)
  • The methods for keeping the decision to halt a project under review
  • The process for re-starting, maintaining a pause, or permanently stopping a change project


This guidance applies to all organisational design/development/change projects where OD & D practitioners are the key stakeholders and/or advising key stakeholders.  The guidance frames the conditions in which a change project should be continued, paused, or stopped completely.

It does not apply to major programmes or to projects and programmes that have no significant impact on the OD & D sphere of interest.


There is no general suspension of planned projects at this point.  But many are changing shape/scope as they prioritise covid-19 response.   This is a time of significant disruption that requires careful judgement calls and a balancing of immediate needs with longer term goals and objectives.

It is likely that as we move out of business continuity/crisis mode into recovery, we will be in a future that is different to the one the change was planning for pre Covid19.

Thus, we must consider the ‘fit’ of the change project in a future that we cannot currently predict or outline in the same way we felt we could pre covid-19.

Generally, consider stopping or pausing a change project if one or more of the criteria below apply:

  1. The project’s objectives cannot be met within the budget and timescale
  2. The project can be completed but it will not create or deliver the intended benefits in the immediate and/or possible future
  3. The organisation/business unit’s assumptions have changed i.e. from ‘normal’ to covid-19 mobilisation and it may not be the “right” project to work on right now, given competing priorities for time, knowledge, skills, other resources, etc.
  4. The context has changed and will continue to be in a state of change for some time and it is felt/decided that the ROI or benefits expectations will not be met either now or in the possible future
  5. The schedule has slipped significantly or is likely to shift significantly and it will incur additional costs to bring it back to a completion schedule
  6. There are delivery difficulties beyond the capabilities of those working on it to manage e.g. remote working complications, team member redeployments, team member sickness etc
  7. Key people have left the project or are likely to leave the project through furlough or redeployment to other/covid-19 work.
  8. There has been a significant change in the organisation/business unit’s interest and strategy and this is likely to continue for some time
  9. The key sponsor has moved on leaving a sponsor vacuum
  10. The impacts of the change on people could cause undue stress and overload as they may already be stressed by covid-19 conditions


Think about your organisation.  What guidance would you give on projects that were in train pre-Covid-19 and may (or may not) be relevant currently and in the immediate future?  Let me know.


One thought on “When to stop a project”

  1. I think many organisations are afraid of taking a stance now and stopping projects. Covid19 has thrown out of the window all the “plans”, which in most case should also mean parts of the reasons why certain projects where started. I suspect most of the reviews are going to be done for cost reasons, not really interrogating if the project is still truly needed. I’m seeing a paralysis of strategic processes at the moment, which coming to your initial quote, means impossibility to assess what NOT to do. Which also means most activities are advancing by inertia…

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