Hitting the Brakes on a Failing Project: How to Implement a Project Pause

Many organizations try to fight against project failure by adding budget, resources, or time to the baseline. However, throwing money at the situation often leads to wasted efforts and more frustration, if the root problem isn’t addressed. Failure itself isn’t necessarily something to resist (see our thoughts on failing fast). However, pulling the plug on a major project can be easier said than done. Internal politics or other factors may limit the team’s ability to admit failure and cancel an initiative.

When your project is destined to fail, but abandoning ship is not an option, a brief pause and shift can allow you to turn things around before you completely blow the budget.

Here are the steps to execute a project pause that produces results:

Watch for Warning Signs

Regardless of project health, it is critical to report on vital signs early and often. Informing stakeholders of quantitative KPIs on a weekly basis is already a standard practice. However, project managers and scrum masters should also be tracking qualitative factors to ensure that there are no surprises or unexpected impediments.

Keep an eye on the following qualitative indicators that could be warning signs for project failure:

  • Low sense of urgency from the team
  • Low stakeholder involvement and effort levels
  • Low responsiveness to risk mitigation
  • Low willingness to collaborate and work across tasks
  • Low attendance and participation in team meetings
  • Low team engagement and satisfaction

If any of these signs begin to emerge, it could be time to raise a flag. Continuous communication of this information is essential to gain support from key stakeholders for a project pause, when it’s needed.

Weigh the Benefits and Consequences

When project goals are in jeopardy and outright project cancellation is not an option, it’s up to the scrum master or PM to recommend a project pause. To sway stakeholders who may jump in to defend the continuation of a struggling project, it’s important to outline the benefits of the pause and the consequences of perpetuation.

Example Benefits of a Project Pause:

  • Allow for on-time, on-budget delivery
  • Create an upswing in momentum
  • Continuous-improvement
  • Update project baselines
  • Collaboration-based problem-solving efforts

Example Consequences of Project Continuation:

  • Delivering late and over budget
  • Steady decrease in momentum
  • Poor quality deliverables
  • Tracking against irrelevant baselines
  • Continuation of negative behaviors

If the benefits of a project pause plus the negative consequences of project continuation are articulated effectively, stakeholders should understand and support the decision.

Pause the Project—With Purpose!

Pausing the project does not mean taking a break. If the pause is treated as a break from hard work, it will hurt the team more than it will help. In fact, every task during a project pause should be an essential, value-adding task. Team members and stakeholders should view the time as an all-hands-on-deck analysis period.

Before the break begins, the project lead must prepare topics to present to the team for analysis and consideration. The focus of prep should include:

  • Topics for problem-solving workshop
  • Definition of project pain points and mitigation options
  • Definition and gaps of roles and responsibilities
  • Possible cultural and mindset barriers
  • Level of effort estimations and accuracy statistics
  • Risk and issue management best practices
  • Sponsor engagement best practices

These topics don’t necessarily need to be solved during the planning process but should be considered to create an agenda for discussions among the team. These discussions should be collaborative, transparent, and free of accusations. The purpose of a pause is to restart the project with a clean slate and positive energy.

Restart the Project

After the team comes to a consensus regarding major pain points and solutions, it is time to restart the project. Project leaders must commit themselves to creating a new behavioral model for the team to follow. Hosting a project kickoff is a perfect way to show the team that the same project now has new expectations, spirit, and goals. Some additional ways to create a trusting, fun and efficient work environment include celebrating small wins, encouraging the team to fail fast, and creating opportunities for fun. Never underestimate the effect of toys, games, humor, or snacks.


If the project objectives are clearly attainable with a shift in process, mindset, or resources, consider a project pause. With focused conversations, team members who want to succeed, and some free food, almost any initiative can go from failing to back on track.

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