De-escalating run-away projects

A common well known problem a lot of public and private organizations face are so called run-away projects and programs. We call a project a run-away when there is an escalation of cost without any real result(s) to show for it. There are ample examples documented in the literature.  There are also quite a few good solutions documented. In one of the next articles we'll provide a few examples of some of those run-away projects.

In a recent article1in Communications of the ACM the authors provide an interesting so-called de-escalating maturity model (DMM) trying to deal with run-away projects. The model is based on three approaches to de-escalation management:

  • The Crisis Management Approach
  • The Change Management Approach
  • The Problem Solving Approach

The model:

De-escalating Maturity Model

As with most maturity models the authors identify 5 levels:


  • Level 1 - Discipline to change project plan
  • Level 2 - Discipline to detect deviations from project plan and prevent escalation
  • Level 3 - Discipline to execute project plan
  • Level 4 - Discipline to encourage bad news reporting and to change attitudes and behaviours
  • Level 5 - Discipline to engage in organizational learning


The authors map each of the process/model elements against one of the levels.


1 Maps to step D
2 Maps to steps A & B
3 Maps to step E
4 Maps to steps B & C
5 Maps to step F

As is to be expected element F) Learn, maps against level 5, organizational learning. The article does not articulate how an organization would achieve any of the levels other than identiyfing some organizational requirements / prerequisites

The model is interesting for its attempt in combining some well known de-escalating approaches with the organizational maturity.

Upon closer examination it becomes clear that the first three levels can all be realised by the implementation of an organization wide and robust project management practice. That is quite often easier said than done by the way. The fourth and fifth level are more geared towards changing (improving?) organizational culture.

And this is also where I have some problems with the model.

Level 3 states: "Organizations that are not projectcentered and do not have well-functioning project management organizations (PMOs) to promote best practices have not yet reached level 3 in terms of the DMM model."


Level 4 states: "Organizations that lack free and open communication and do not tolerate those who question the status quo have not yet reached level 4 in terms of the DMM model."

I argue that a well functioning PMO can only exist in an organization that has free and open communication!

(My) Lessons Learned:

  • A project without a solid and constantly monitored business case is trouble waiting to happen
  • A plan is like food, it has a limited shelf life and needs to be refreshed regularly
  • No news is good news and only good news in not good news!
  • The most powerfull but least used verb in a Project Manager's vocabulary is: 'NO'
  • Lessons are not learned at the end of a project but at the beginning!

1) De-escalating IT Projects: The DMM Model | Donal Flynn, Gary Pan, Mark Keil, and Magnus Mähring | communications of the acm | october 2009 | vol. 52 | no. 10 |