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Restart or shut down? When to phoenix a project

Adeline Teoh ed.
September 22, 2014

What is it about destroying everything and starting again that appeals to some? Call it nihilism, a childhood with not enough Lego or a phoenix as a spirit animal but I can’t help but feel the urge to clean the slate and rewrite everything.

Of all the projects I admire, brownfield ones impress me the most. How project managers can successfully run a project on a site that’s already live with other forms of activity, priorities and agendas is akin to magic for me, particularly those such as hospitals where the environment and the deference to process is integral to the smooth operation of a life-saving organisation.

If I had my way I’d just raze the old stuff and start again. While that tendency isn’t always a healthy one (or a cheap one when it comes to, say, being a marble sculptor), it does make me think of the times when starting from scratch may be the only way to do a project properly. Cases in point:

1. When the business case needs to be redefined

I’m far from a green thumb but when I moved into the apartment I’m currently renting, I gave up my balcony garden and settled for some windowsill plants. The reality was I didn’t care that much about the plants, I was actually more attracted to having a private outdoor area and the plants were what made that area pleasant to be in. Working hard on growing windowsill plants is solving the wrong problem. Instead, I’m moving to a place with a balcony.

2. When changes to scope don’t work

I was once commissioned to write a 600-word article for a magazine profiling a business. It was close to deadline when the editor emailed to ask whether I could make it 1,200 words instead. A 1,200-word article is not just a 600-word article with 600 words of padding added to it: it requires rethinking the most pertinent aspects of the story and possibly a restructuring of the flow. It is often easier to start from scratch than edit existing material, just like it’s better to rebuild the house than add a storey to a shaky foundation.

3. When things get toxic and unworkable

If the corner of a block of cheddar gets mouldy, it’s generally okay to cut that bit off and eat the rest. When a slice of bread gets mouldy, it’s better to throw away the loaf and get another one*. Why? Some kinds of toxins are deep-set and cannot be removed without compromising the whole item, just like some kinds of projects cannot be salvaged so must be killed and resurrected in a new form.

When do you think it’s best to start again?

(*From ABC Health & Wellbeing)

Adeline Teoh ed.
Adeline Teoh is the editor of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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