This or that? My cheat-sheet for turning cancelled projects into interview goldOct 10, 2023
Projects and change attract a certain type of person - high achievers that truly care about the transformation they have promised their leaders and teams. So if a project gets started strong but then it's just not going to happen and is cancelled completely, it can be both frustrating and heartbreaking both for your own sense of accomplishment AND for your career portfolio.
But rather than throw the baby out with the project bathwater, you can totally take stock, change tack, and turn a cancelled project into gold for your career future. Here’s how:
#1 Congratulate yourself
First of all, I'm going to say congratulations. I am literally going to say congratulations on a project that's actually pulled completely. For the leader, the team, the project, the business that actually had the confidence and the courage to stop something before it launches. Because I actually see it happen a lot the other way: projects that should have been stopped and never launched, launch anyway despite the fact that business strategy and potential benefits have moved on. The best solution is not this one anymore. The team was never going to be ready. It was never going to be the right thing, or it's just not the right thing now. I actually see that the other way a lot due to poor prioritisation. Where it gets launched anyway and it goes live anyway, and you end up with the fallout of broken trust, people trying to push through it, and then it being unwound after it's been implemented. And that can do more damage than cancelling it ahead of time. So congratulate yourself and your team for being brave enough to pull the plug!
#2 Mourn the loss
Saying that, it is sad. It is. The waste, the effort. People have probably been working on this for months and sometimes years, so there's a lot of pride built up into it and disappointment in all that effort going to waste. For a lot of people, the money is something that they come to work for, but it's not the reason they stay at work. It's not the reason they stay in the job or in the project. Other things are actually driving them. It can be disappointing when a go-live moves, but it is obviously more disappointing when a project gets cancelled completely. I don't think it's actually happened on my projects themselves, just ones I’m adjacent to. But I’ve definitely left roles or projects or clients before we’ve had the chance to go live and that too is sad. If your project is cancelled completely, acknowledge and appreciate the way that people might be feeling. Don't try and brush it under the carpet. There's going to be a lot of disappointment asking, "What was this all for? Why did I even bother?" So acknowledging that as part of the communications and messaging is going to be really key.
#3 Treat the cancellation as a change in itself
Interestingly, to help manage the fallout, you can address the project not going live as though it's a change in and of itself. You probably need to go and do a Change Impact Assessment because there’ll be commercial impacts, team impacts, and more so you probably need to consult your stakeholders. You can use a lot of the tools that you would use for a change to launch, and use them in the opposite direction to help get closure for the project and around the change itself. This could look like offering to do a Post-Implementation Review and going, "Hey, it sucks that we had to cancel this project, but what did we do that went well? Should we run a Post-Implementation Review and see what we could have done better along the way, so that next time we don't get right up until this stage and pull the plug at the last minute?" You could do a Change Impact Assessment to go, "Great, this decision that's being made, what does this mean? Who is this going to affect? What will those people need to do differently? What will we need to put in place to make sure that we don't have any gaps? What will we need to put in place to make sure that we are not open from a risk or legal perspective?" You could actually create a Change Impact Assessment for the change, which is the project NOT going live. Obviously, communications you're going to have to do. And think about running some sessions so it’s not just written comms and instead can have some senior leaders explain the rationale behind it, and give people the opportunity to ask questions and get their views and thoughts heard.
#4 Celebrate success
One of the biggest things, especially for the Project team, is to reward, recognise and celebrate the work that was done. Because what the Project team (and potentially even business teams) will be looking for is emotional closure. If it's appropriate to invite your suppliers or vendors who were working on the project with you, you could do that. They probably still got paid, but they won’t get the case study or the client proof and they probably had as much heart as your internal team for the project to be a success. But if it's not appropriate, then obviously just keep it internal and let your celebration also be consolation. Usually, you just need to recognise the effort that was put in, and also reassure people that it's got nothing to do with them. Try to depersonalise the reason so that people don't take it on board that they themselves failed. You can't control how people react, but you could obviously brainstorm all of the possible reactions and support them through that.
#5 Rebuild trust
And if you have the capacity and willingness in the organisation, you could try some trust rebuilding exercises (I provide a range of ideas in my Leading Successful Change program for rebuilding trust with survivor employees after a restructure). Be really mindful of the situation and what's appropriate, and get as much signed off from a senior leadership perspective as you can. Sometimes, people will accept news if it comes from someone high up in the organisation. And that there's a reason that's not related to performance specifically, it can help take the pain away or the feeling of pressure off them.
#6 Use it as interview gold
Finally, see the project cancellation for the career gift that it is. Successes are great for interviews, but failures and how you supported a project and team through them make just as good fodder to share your learnings, awareness, and expertise. In NLP we say, “There is no failure, only feedback.” so if you don’t have the success to share, a more powerful interview story may be how you overcame the failure. You worked on the change. It does not take away from that. I would absolutely still put it on a CV, on a LinkedIn profile, on everything if you worked for at least a few months on a project, even if it was eventually cancelled. It is absolutely part of your experience, absolutely something you have added value to, and absolutely something you learned and built transferable skills and confidence along the way with. So add it your experience, pop it on your CV, and use it in interviews. Be open and honest and just go, "Look, the project ended up being pulled because of things outside of our control. And that in itself, was probably even harder than going live. And I had to pivot and help the team through that." It's a great story to tell. Just turn all your failures and challenges around into great interview fodder and be ever the optimist.
This last point is so important because being a Change Manager is so much more than just the work, it’s also about how you build and grow and showcase your successes and skills in your career. That’s why I always focus on both the Change and Career at the same time, and will be doing that in my free Change Tools Masterclass that kicks off in less than 24 hours at 5.00pm EDT (New York time) / 8.00am AEDT (Sydney time). If you haven't registered your free spot yet, do so ASAP here as spaces are limited and it's your last chance to jump on board for the very start of the masterclass.
And if you've registered already, keep an eye on your inbox and your exclusive Masterclass VIP Concierge Page - Video 1 is coming out super soon!
P.S. Remember, my free Change Tools Masterclass kicks off in less than 24 hours at 5.00pm EDT Tuesday 10 October (New York time) / 8.00am AEDT Wednesday 11 October (Sydney time) so register ASAP here.
P.P.S. If you've already registered, keep an eye on your inbox as your exclusive Masterclass VIP Concierge Page - Video 1 comes out really really soon!
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