Postponing a Project Successfully

By: Enrique Colombo


Imagine you start reading a book but put it down halfway through. A year later, when you’re ready to resume it, you don’t have to start from the beginning—all is back in your memory and you can pick it up exactly where you left off.

This should be the case with project postponements—starting where they left off—but often isn’t, and that costs organizations far more than it should.

The Cost of Stopping a Project

Now let’s say you’re running a high-visibility multi-million dollar project for a medical device company, with a term of eight months. It is an upgrade project that has been postponed twice before. Every time the project restarted, all of the work started again from scratch. All previous work (and investment) has been lost. So here we are again: the project restarts once more, and the attitude is as always: “we must mitigate risk at all cost.”

Now again, thanks to unforeseen circumstances—i.e. COVID—the decision is made to pause the project; the case is that with all the uncertainty that the current times bring, “it would be more prudent to stop the investment within two weeks, then once the problem is mitigated, we can restart.”  And once again that attitude can prove to be a costly mistake.

The previous two times the project was postponed, the company spent $1.7 million each time to restart. So if the same strategy is followed the third time, history shows where things will end up. 

This kind of time and money expenditure is unfruitful, thus unnecessary, and perhaps some folks don’t realize there’s a more fruitful approach to taking a project hiatus.

A Better Way to Ramp Down a Project Midstream

We meet at your office to discuss the project postponement by next week. You’re shocked that instead, I ask we continue for an additional five weeks to close it down successfully. Then we review the Project Postponement Plan… and a eureka moment happens. 

You realize that the value of the additional investment will achieve the project completion of key tasks and build a rapid and cheap relaunch mechanism:

  • The functional and technical work would be completed to a settled inflection point that can be productively restarted to bring the work to completion.
  • Exit plans and narratives would be available for the restart team to understand the what, where, when, how, and who of the final state of each project area.
  • Concrete steps from the PMO down to the SME would be available for reentry, so each area can be relaunched procedurally and in a pragmatic manner with a fast, predetermined ascent velocity. 

The purpose of this approach is to streamline deliverables for when the teams come back online. Even if you replace the entire project team when you restart, the new crew will have a thread they can grab to recover prior investment and effort. 

Postponing a project successfully will not only minimize your organization’s risk but will also expedite its completion once it restarts. Yes, you can restart reading your book right where you left off.

Postpone a Project with Restarting in Mind

If you’re ready to resume reading War and Peace, it would be nice not to have to start at the beginning again, wouldn’t it? Sure, you might need Cliff’s Notes to refresh your memory, but that’s a far better investment of your time than rereading 600 pages. Taking the time to mindfully postpone a project, even if it requires additional investment, will pave the way for the success of the project.