Failed Project Wake


The Trident project was the most exciting project I had ever worked on. We were a small team with an aggressive schedule, but we made good progress and were actually ahead of schedule. Then one day the the company made a major business decision that meant that the Trident project was probably unnecessary. Sure enough, the project was canceled a few days later. We all agreed that it was probably the right decision, and we appreciated the speed with which it was made, but it still hurt.

For a week we walked around in a fog. We did nothing. Finally, we took the afternoon off, and had a party at someone's home. We brought our families and played croquet in the back yard. After that it was much easier to move on to the next project.

...projects fail for a variety of reasons. Many of these are attributable to the team involved in the project; in fact, this pattern language is designed to help with many such problems. But software developers don't work in a vacuum. There are many external factors that contribute to the success or failure of any project. Changes in the market, for example, can doom a product before it ever gets out the door. You can have the greatest, hardest working team in the world, and their project still might get canceled, in spite of their best efforts.

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Canceling a project, even for the best external reasons, is particularly demoralizing to a team that has put its heart and soul into it.

It doesn't matter much that the team members fully understand the reasons behind the cancellation, they still feel bad. They feel powerless, somewhat apathetic, and sometimes betrayed. At best, they will have some "down" time, even if they have another project to jump into immediately. At worst, they may quit.

They may note that successful projects are rewarded, but it wasn't their fault that their project was canned. This feeling of inequity can be strong.


Hold a wake for the failed project. This should be much the flavor of an Irish wake; a party for the dead.
Don't try to placate them with false statements of "success." They all know the project bombed, so just hold a party over that.
Go ahead and make it a big party; make it more than just cake and punch in the cafeteria. And make it a real party; it shouldn't be a project retrospective. There is a time and a place for retrospectives, and this isn't it. (Gerhard Ackermann [BibRef-Ackermann2002] points out that it is possible to combine the two, if you have a strong facilitator, and the main purpose continues to be the wake.)

It's best to hold the wake off-site. That helps people break from the old project, and avoids even the appearance of a retrospective.

It's even more helpful to hold the wake during working hours; an afternoon works well. Holding the wake during work hours sends a subtle "thank-you" message: everyone knows they don't get a bonus (see CompensateSuccess), but they appreciate some acknowledgment of their efforts.

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Just like the death of a loved one, the death of a project causes a period of mourning. A wake helps people get through the stages of mourning.

It also serves as a bit of a catharsis. People will come out of it much more ready to attack the next project, "and this time we'll succeed!" It is particularly important for upper management explicitly to express appreciation for the effort, especially when the failure owes to business decisions rather than to decisions owned by the development team. Paul Bramble notes that this helps "calm people down and to be less worried about their future at the company."