Viability assessment of a project — When to give up

Project viability assessment is a set of tools that allows a project manager or any decision maker associated to the project to determine whether it’s worth it to continue executing the project, when the cards are set against its success.

We’ve all seen the timeless graphic that’s probably at least as old as the internet of a frog choking a bird that’s trying to swallow it, with the caption “Never give up” associated to it.

The sentiment is certainly honorable, as perseverance is most often rewarded in general life, whether it leads to success or not. But does this apply to a project? Should a project stand its ground and face the storm head on, no matter what? Should it follow through with its objectives, no matter how grim the situation it’s currently in?

The project manager, in the scope of project control, has to be able to determine if a flag must be raised to the sponsor when certain threshholds are surpassed. Those gates are put in place to ensure that a project doesn’t start burning its own engine once it runs out of oil. this is where project viability assessment comes in.

A project needs to have a controlled scope in order to ensure that all parties understand what the final product should include. Scope creep can be introduced to the project by eager resources or by overinvested sponsors that can skew the execution of the work well beyond what was originally intended. This uses up project resources to a point where there may be none left to deliver the original project deliverables. The project is then left with half-baked deliverables, and a handful of last minute “nice to have” items that no one intended on working on at the beginning of the project.

Timelines can slip within the boundaries of buffer zones set at the beginning of the project. Late decisions or deliverables, unrealistic deadlines, unexpected defects or simply a bad assessment can quickly ruin the best laid plan. Some breathing room should always be part of a risk assessment plan, but sometimes, you just run out of that too. You’re then faced with a hard decision. Do we press on, knowing that the project is that close to the finish line, or do we evaluate if the project should be closed and the gains that were made counted as the meager gains the project was able to make?

Resources come and go, and they often do at the worst of times. With human resources, queuing from higher priority projects, sickness, reassignment and simply quitting can really put a wrench into a project’s wheels, especially if that resource was marked as a subject matter expert, with knowledge that’s not easy to replace. Budgets can run up quickly when unforeseen expenses accumulate. How much will the project be willing to spend to reach its goal before it finally capitulates to the onslaught of uncontrollable spending? Has the project made an agreement with a highly specialized external firm for goods and services? Imagine for a second that firm were to vanish overnight. Can others be brought in to replace them? If not, can the project even go on executing without access to the input the firm provided?

What can be done to help the project’s viability?

Proper risk management can help mitigate the need to perform a full viability assessment, but risk management can’t always prevent risks. Some events are completely out of anyone’s control, and those risks need to be mitigated. As effective as mitigation steps can be, if the project has become in such a bad shape as a result of a major incident, it may be best to determine if it’s better to carry on, or to start over with a clean slate. Carrying on means accepting the risk of using deliverables that may not be as well in shape as they’re meant to be.

A house frame that was close to a recent fire may be salvaged by replacing some of the rough, but you always have to worry about the timber you didn’t replace. Did it hold up against the flame enough that it won’t crumble in the long term? Would it cost less time and effort to start over than to have to repair damage that a degraded frame may carry in lifetime of the house?

To use the example of the image I mentioned at the start of the post, how long should the bird keep trying to swallow the frog before it stops to realize that it should, in fact, give up — that all its efforts are useless because he’s caught in a zero-sum game? Do you have the same visibility on your own projects?

As always, you can find out more about this topic and more online with the PMI: Project Management Institute