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Finish Off Unfinished Projects

These two statistics about projects should give anyone at any level in an organization pause. First is that 75% of IT executives believe their projects are “doomed from the start.” (Source: Geneca). Secondly, that project performance is a start differentiator, with high-performing organizations successfully complete 89% of their projects, as compared to only a 36% completion rate for low performing organizations. (Source:

Both stats are strong rationale for simplifying the number of projects you are juggling, both individually and organizationally.  Ready to spend your work time doing real work that matters? Then this challenge is for you!

This post is #6 in a series of posts in a 10 Step Process to simplify your work life and to get more focus on the things that really matter. Each step, in and of itself, will enable you to simplify to focus, but I do encourage you to do Step 2: Setting Unambiguous and Unwavering Priorities prior to taking steps 3 to 10.

And a quick reminder:  it’s not too late to join the 10-step work simplification challenge! You can revisit all the steps, get additional hints and resources and share your progress and by joining our LinkedIn Group: LinkedIn Group: 10 Steps to Simplify Work


There is the work we are do day in and day out. Things like service customers, hire employees, balance the books, produce the goods. And then there are the projects. There are the projects we initiate because we see a need. There are the projects that are assigned to us, sometimes as a part of our regular work and at times on top of our regular work. And there are those projects we volunteer for, knowing that the cost of doing the project may extract a price in doing less of something else or devoting more of our personal time and energy.

The mix between recurring, regular work and project work varies, according to our roles. For some of us, projects may be the exception rather than the norm. For others, most of our work might be project based.

A project, by definition, has a beginning and an end. My experience is that I am much better at starting projects than completing them. I see things that could be better, and I take them on. I get excited about new possibilities and I raise my hand eagerly. I am terrible at saying no, therefore I am an easy target for those who need something done and need someone to do it. And my experience tells me that you too may suffer from too many projects, ill-conceived projects and assigned projects that detract from important priorities.

As a result, as individuals we amass a stack of unfinished projects. Projects that linger longer than necessary. Projects that have lost their luster or their sense of urgency. Projects that are stuffed in a desk drawer but still linger in the mind.

Organizations take on projects too; albeit much larger and unwieldy. Often time they have fancy names and real resources assigned to them, either full or part time. They often have people to manage the project and Gantt charts and dashboard and lots of sophisticated ways to make and measure progress.

And just like me, organizations have their fair share of projects that have lost their energy, their urgency or their purpose. From what I’ve experienced, killing an organizational project is far more challenging that any projects I kill personally.

I’ve seen organizations continue to push a project up hill that was no longer needed or valuable, all because no one had the courage to question the project need or viability. I’ve seen resources continue to be allocated to failing projects, because too many were fearful of losing face if they called the project a failure.

Projects do seem to take on a life on their own. They linger even though they are languishing. No matter how feeble or ill conceived they are; we are disinclined to challenge their existence. Even in the face of irrefutable evidence of their questionability, we keep them on life support, quietly humming the background even though comatose.

To kill a project is an act of courage. It requires the fortitude to let go of something that you’ve already sunk time, energy and resources in. Counter-intuitively, it appears wasteful to dispose of all that you’ve already invested in it even when the cost to carry on far exceeds your investment to date.

To sunset a project requires humility. To accept and to admit that you over-committed or under-resourced or failed to see things clearly. To make a public admission that you stumbled or were unable to get something over the finish line.

Yet from my experience, once the agony of the decision is past and you’ve dismantled and discarded the project, good things begin to happen.

  • You begin to feel lighter having lost those nagging thoughts about what you “should” be doing
  • You have more energy for the remaining work
  • You discover more time to do what really matters
  • Your credibility is enriched with those you lead
  • Allows other, more valuable projects to be done

Let’s start by determining which projects should exist or if you should exit?

  • Is what we were trying to achieve with this project still valuable?
    • If no – kill it
  • Now that we know more, will the value of the project be greater than the investment?
    • If no – kill it
  • Are you doing this because you think you “should” or because of the expectations of others?
    • If yes – kill it
  • Have you done your level best but still not getting close to completion?
    • If yes – kill it or radically rethink it
  • Is there any movement or positive momentum?
    • If no – kill it
  • Can you see a feasible path to project success?
    • If no – kill it.
  • Are there other higher priority projects that this projects is draining time and resources from?
    • If yes – kill it or radically rethink it
  • Are your reasons for keeping the project alive legitimate?
    • If yes – refocus, recharge and revitalize

Project rationalization is a business decision. It is about how you allocate your own focus, time resources and energy – and that of those supporting the projects you lead. The best leaders recognize that taking on too much can mean falling short in many things rather than succeeding at the things that are the most important.

So I challenge you – to take a hard look at your current project lists – and make hard decisions about their viability. Double down on the most important – and ditch the ones that are distractions.

Challenge One: Evaluate Your Current Projects (30 minutes)

Let’s start by understanding exactly where you stand- by taking a hard look at all the projects you have on your “to do” list and then evaluating their status.

  1. Create a list of current projects

All of them, from mammoth to mundane. Don’t confuse a project with a “to do” list item. A “to do” list item typically has just a few steps that can be done by you. A project will have multiple steps or stages and typically will require coordination others to complete it. For example: writing a blog post is a task. Overhauling your website is a project. Projects also have a finite end, while some tasks may be on-going or repeated.

Your list of current projects can include projects that will take a few hours to knock out to those that will take months (and sometimes years).

  1. Pull out your list of priorities

Remember that short list of priorities from Step Two? (if you skipped ahead – go back to Step Two now). Dust it off and evaluate each and every project against your priority list, putting them into three categories:

  • Highly aligned with your top priorities
  • Somewhat aligned with your top priorities
  • Not at all aligned with your top priorities
  1. Start with your low alignment projects, evaluating each one and make a go-forward decision for each.

The problem with projects is that we can let them linger and linger and linger. We convince ourselves we will do them “when we have time”. We fail to definitively purge the projects cleanly.

Now clearly, there may be projects that just need completed. Use this framework to determine your approach for your #2 and #3 category projects.

  • Misaligned but Must do – These are the projects that regardless of alignment just have to get done. If these projects take less than 3 hours, just schedule time and get knocked out. If more than 3 hours, find ways to complete as efficiently as possible. That can be extreme focus or using productivity tools or delegating parts of the work.
  • Misaligned and Assigned – For these, go back to your boss and renegotiate, based on your top priorities. You may be successful in dumping it (not doing it at all). If you can’t dump it, you may be able to delegate it or de-scope it, paring it down to the bare minimum.
  • Misaligned and Moldy – These are the projects that have been on your to do list for far too long. They never go away and you’ve not done anything to move if forward for quite a long time. Even if painful, deep six it. I suspect that you will be the only one who will notice that it is gone!
  • Misaligned Mistake – These projects sounded great at one point. Now they have lost energy and focus. None the less, you hang on to them, often out of fear of embarrassment or not wanting to admit failure. These projects provide an opportunity for you to be bold and declare an end to the project. These are the projects that are ripe for a post-mortuum, for understanding what didn’t work as expected can be a rich source of learning.

Challenge Two: Eat the Frog (2 – 3 hours)

Too often the projects that drag on and on do so because we are avoiding them. They are not the things we really like to do. It becomes easier to just defer than to do them. In my experience, often I’ve spent more time and energy avoiding doing the work than the amount of time and energy it takes to do the work.

So eating the frog means you just do it. You do it first thing. You do it without complaining. You don’t get distracted, you just get it done.

For this challenge, clean up your project list by finding those “frogs projects” – those you are avoiding or procrastinating with – and block out time in the next week (first thing in the day) and wrap them up.

Guaranteed that you’ll feel better once you do – even though eating the frog is not the most fun.

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