Project termination: lessons learned and Organisational learning

Date: 04/05/2019

Prepared by: Majed Abdeen

As Project-Manager, it is my duty to advise higher-management that the project I'm managing should be terminated. On one project I worked on, I sent three official emails to senior management clarifying the project status, and recommending that it would be advisable to terminate the project. However, this was not sufficient for them to terminate the project early; this is likely due to senior management being reluctant to be involved with an unsuccessful project (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 555). Their reluctance resulted in greater loss of money and reputation than it would have if the project had been terminated earlier. In that project I noted some indicators mentioned by (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 540) which show that that the project is already terminated but unofficially, such as: the project has been indefinitely delayed, the resources have been deployed to other projects, and changes in the external environment also contributed to killing the project. I believe that as Project-Managers it's unprofessional and unethical to continue working in projects without recommending termination if these projects are not able to achieve their goals.


Projects may be terminated when the need for the project no longer exists, or the objectives cannot be met, thus to learn from failed projects and terminate correctly, organisations require appropriate project management (PMI, 2017, pp. 10,542). Terminated projects may be successful or unsuccessful; reasons for unsuccessful termination include insufficient support, incorrect appointment of Project-Manager, and poor planning (Meredith, et al., 2015, pp. 547,548).

Organisational learning from failed projects

Organisations can learn from failed projects, to prevent the same failures in future, although higher-management must remain cognizant of psychological barriers to learning (Drummond, 1999, p. 15). Project Auditing and post-project reviews are critical methods for learning, examining lessons learned that can be benefitted from in future (Zedtwitz, 2002, p. 255), although, staff must recognize potential challenges to the process through: attribution bias (where participants underemphasize their role); belief that events are within the organisation's control, when they may not be; and, over-specifying resulting in treatment of symptoms not root causes (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 536). When auditing, the problem must be diagnosed carefully, and the environment and project should be examined at both macro- and micro-scales to ensure the full picture is understood, while causes should be categorised accurately (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 538). It is beneficial to include managers of new projects in reviews of failed projects to enable learning and knowledge dissemination (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 538). Identifying critical success-factors and matching them with actions taken can assist in identifying problems in future (Pinto et al. (1987), cited by Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 547).

Why organisations may terminate projects

Ensuring lessons are learned from failed projects allows warning signs to be understood and identified earlier in the process, enabling termination to prevent wasted resources. Using Agile (phase-based) project life-cycles facilitates project performance to be closely monitored and terminated or continued as planned (PMI, 2017, p. 547). When problems are encountered, Project-Managers should consider whether similar situations have occurred previously, and their outcomes (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 538). Additionally, Project-Managers must ensure that project objectives are aligned with the business objectives; frequently projects are terminated when the goals no longer fit the organisation's strategic goals (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 547). Continuing with the project under these circumstances leads to wastes of resources/effort.

Project termination: Correct timing and methodology

It is mandatory that projects are correctly terminated to ensure lessons-learned and failure-reasons are documented for future benefit. Projects may be effectively terminated through actions such as when resources are removed or redeployed, production has stopped, or the project is delayed indefinitely (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 540); in such situations, documentation is frequently ignored (Zedtwitz, 2002, p. 255). Termination by extinction often happens without prior indications, while termination by starvation occurs when project funds are cut over a period of time (Meredith, et al., 2015, pp. 541,544).

Terminating a project prior to intended completion should be done correctly, involving formal documentation of termination reasons, procedures for transferring assets, and authorisation by the appropriate authority (PMI, 2017, pp. 128,542). Once it has been determined that the project will not be completed according to the iron triangle, and if time/funds required to complete are unavailable, the project should be terminated, a decision made, then implemented via planning, budgeting and scheduling the termination (Meredith, et al., 2015, pp. 549-551). Project-Managers require specific skills for termination, whether by addition/integration (Meredith, et al., 2015, p. 541) or from inability to complete; negotiation and cooperation skills, understanding, and ability to develop an ending plan for stakeholders oriented for the future (Havila, et al., 2013, pp. 91-93).


Drummond, H., 1999. Are we any closer to the end? Escalation and the case of Taurus. International Journal of Project Management, 17(1), pp. 11-16.

Havila, V., Medlin, C. J. & Salmi, A., 2013. Project-ending competence in premature project closures. International Journal of Project Management, 31(1), pp. 90-99.

Meredith, J. R., Samuel J. Mantel, J. & Shafer, S. M., 2015. Project Management: A Managerial Approach. 9th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

PMI, 2017. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. 6th ed. Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc.

Zedtwitz, M. v., 2002. Organizational learning through post-project reviews in R&D. R&D Management, 32(3), pp. 255-268.