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The project management textbooks have a lot to say about how to avoid project failure. But what is our responsibility to our teams (and to ourselves!) when a project is simply cancelled for reasons beyond our control? What should we say to our teams? What should we do, in a tactical sense?

Early in my career, I had a website project evaporate only a week before launch. Our client—a regional government ministry—was dissolved overnight with no warning. There was nothing we could have done to avoid it, so we laughed about it as a team and moved on. But for the next few months, the entire team was disengaged, downtrodden, and deflated.

Upon reflection, I realized that project work has a lot of emotions attached. Projects are an opportunity to make an impact, to strengthen a portfolio, to shine in front of your peers, and to angle for that promotion.

So when a project doesn’t make it to fruition, it doesn’t just put your team back on the bench, it disrupts the vision they had of their future. And that can be a big hit to team morale.

Good project leadership also means showing leadership in between projects, especially when a project ends abruptly. By doing so, PMs can soften the blow to engagement and productivity so that teams can get back to their high-performing selves sooner.

Here are three examples of how to lead between projects when a project ends abruptly:

1. Have 1:1 Mini-Retros

Find the time to have a chat with individual team members to see how they’re feeling about the cancelled project, and ask if they need support. This doesn’t have to be a big meeting—it could just be a 10-minute check-in or a quick cup of tea.

2. Transition Team Goals To Future Projects

Get the team to write down what they had hoped to achieve on the project that was cancelled. Then create a board that everyone can see or access as a reminder of what to strive for on their next project.

3. Redirect Momentum With Purpose

Nobody likes being ripped from a project and plopped into some meaningless busy work or tedious training modules. Where possible, take the time to understand what project team members are interested in doing, and try to use your influence to make that happen. Turn bench time into real growth.

What’s Next?

Alright, so you may be thinking that none of these things are the responsibility of a project manager, and you’d be right.

But here’s the thing: those team members will remember how you turned a bad situation into something a little better. And that loyalty will give you an extra little bit of momentum when you work together again.

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Galen Low
By Galen Low

Galen is a digital project manager with over 10 years of experience shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. He is a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. He's also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.