I'm not talking about the project closing process.

Is it the responsibility of a project manager to recommend to senior leadership or the customer to prematurely terminate a project with no reasonable chance of success? Should this decision be made only by the project sponsor? What does the PM do in the case of a difference of opinion?

Assuming that the project is failing for reasons beyond the control of the PM, how does one terminate the project without also terminating your career?

7 Answers 7


Canceling a project is a sponsor's decision. However if you, as PM, believe project should be canceled it's not enough just to prepare project status and plans to bring it back on the track. Actually most of the time you need to attach you recommendation to close the project. Otherwise the message may not make it through to the project sponsor.

Note: often decision-makers are reluctant to cancel a project, even if it's doomed, because of sunk cost. It usually means you need very strong arguments to convince them to make this call. You may find this article helpful in terms of estimating how much finishing the project would cost.

I wouldn't be afraid of consequences of project termination. Actually if you're right about project status it may be presented as achievement: "I saved big bunch of $ by convincing decision-makers to cancel a doomed project." Also I'm generally far from setting simple dependency between project success and project manager's success. Answers to a question about discussing terminated project in CV may be helpful (even though a situation is different here).


You should push to cancel failed projects specifically as protection for your career.

It is better to stop a project before more of the company's time and money are spent on it. You are a steward of the company or client's resources.

If there is a difference of opinion, you need to listen to your manager. But make your opinion clear. If it turns out you were right, great for you. If it turns out you were wrong, you can always give a tip of the hat to your manager.


Is part your responsibility to terminate a bad project, is completely your responsibility to bring all the facts to the table for the sponsor to pull the plug.

Be objective about it. Bring your sponsor and tell him/her what is the current status of the projects. Explain the modifications that you will do to get this project back on track. Sometimes this objective modification will include things that are not acceptable by the sponsor or sponsor's executives. Making him pull the plug.

When you say difference in opinion, I think that you either believe the project is not a failure or your sponsor does. In either case my comment above covers the general idea.


The project sponsor who approved the charter is really the only one who can cancel a project outright. The same people who initiated and authorized a project need to be fully informed of the need to kill a project but the decision is ultimately theirs and not the PMs


Following Prince2: It's the task of the PM to give advise on termination of the project and escalate risks and issues. But it's the project board (executive, senior user and senior supplier) to give authorization to terminate the project. If you don't have the authorization, you cannot end it.

If you are working as consultant as PM you should seek other opportunities in that company. If none can be found, then, you should move on to the next client to be a PM.

If you are working fixed at the client, then you will be placed on other projects or be thanked for the work done...

It's better to close the project properly, in my opinion, then to try to keep it alive without a good reason, and costing extra for the company.

You might want to close the project in correct way, and get it on paper by the company that 'stopping the project' was not because of the work done by the PM.

closing a project too soon, is just a part of the PM job I suppose... but please correct me if wrong...


If Failure is Assured, Fail Early

If a project has failed, and isn't salvageable from a business perspective, then it should be canceled. This is a cost control measure, and certainly one of the objectives of effective project management.

While it's better to identify at-risk projects early on in the process and take corrective action, once a project has actually failed it means that no further business value can be realized. At that point, why continue funding it?

Project Ownership

In Scrum, the Product Owner is responsible for terminating the project. In other methodologies, the responsible party may be the project sponsor, the steering committee, or whoever is specifically tasked with the decision in the project's charter.

Generally, the project manager is responsible for raising the visibility of risks and reporting project status. In many organizations, the project manager is also responsible for project-related financial projections, but this varies in my experience. However, unless the project charter gives you authority to terminate a project, then the best you can do is offer your honest professional opinion to those who actually have the authority to make (de)funding decisions.

Organizational Misperceptions

I've overheard people say that project management is "responsibility without authority." This stems from a common misperception of the role of project management. A good project manager is a shepherd of process, not a task master, overseer, or project guarantor.

That doesn't mean PMs aren't blamed when projects fail. Of course they are. However, that's a cultural and social issue within an organization, and part of a PMs job as a process coach is to educate and inform management and team members of the scope (and limits) of your role.


project is failing for reasons beyond the control of the PM

This phrase means serious problem. There are no reasons beyond PM's control. This is a fundamental rule of the entire project management discipline. If project is failing it means the PM is failing.

If the situation around the project is changing (shortage of fundings, failures of suppliers, scope creep, quality problems, etc.) the PM has to make changes to project constraints: scope, cost, time, quality. Every change has to be re-approved with project sponsor. If necessary such re-approval may be done a few times per day.

A good project manager together with a new project baseline shows a forecast to a project sponsor. He/she explains to the sponsor that "the cost is $500K now and, according to my forecast, in 2 weeks it will be $550K". Project sponsor makes a decision whether to stop the project or to continue. A bad project manager will try to hide the truth.

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