“We are not good at killing innovation projects.”
In the past two days, three people in two different companies across two different industries said these exact words to me.
If Step #1 in solving a problem is admitting that you have one, then my clients should feel pretty good about making progress.
But what’s Step #2?
“Killing the project” is an obvious and fundamentally unhelpful answer. But before we get to the less obvious and helpfully actionable answer, we need to acknowledge a fact about humans
We decide with our hearts, justify with our heads, and require guts to act.
As much as we would like to believe that we, as humans, are logical and fact-driven, we’re not. If we were, we would not be swayed by brands and we would all agree on the best restaurant, music, and political candidate.
Beliefs, values, emotions, and connections (our heart) drive our behavior. We choose things that help us feel a certain way, create a certain perception, or signal our belonging to a certain group. As Clay Christensen would say, we choose things that solve emotional and social Jobs to be Done.
We then find or seek out facts and evidence that justify the decisions our hearts have made. We want to be logical and rational, to make “the best choice,” and to be able to sway people with our arguments. We use our heads to justify our hearts.
But that alone isn’t enough. We don’t do things that we know we should (flossing, eating vegetables, maintaining long-term investments in innovation). We do what we want even though we know we shouldn’t (eat a lot of sugar, drink too much, binge watch anything that starts with “Real Housewives of”).
We need motivation and courage (guts) to translate our wants and our thoughts into action. Perhaps, even more importantly, when our heads and our hearts disagree, we need guts to make the decision and act.
Because without guts, when the head and the heart disagree, the heart always wins.
That’s why you’re not good at killing projects.
Here’s a common scenario: after working for several years on a new product you get data that shows that it won’t “work.”
Perhaps it’s clinical data indicating that the product doesn’t provide the efficacy required. Or market data showing that customers aren’t willing to buy the product at the current price or buy as much of it as expected to justify the investment. Or benchmarking data that estimates that your product will be in the bottom 5% of products ever launched by your company.
Whatever it is, it’s not good and the data and logic all dictate that the project should be killed.
Instead, you deem it to be “strategic” and keep working on it.
This is because, in your heart, you believe in the project. You were part of creating it. You nurtured it from concept to concrete, guiding it through near-death experiences, and celebrating its successes. You love this project.
Your heart says “keep going,” while your head says “make it stop.”
You need guts to make the decision.
It’s hard to decide, but Step #2 makes it easier.
If the first step is knowing in your head that the project is not viable and will not meet expectations no matter what you do, the second step is finding the guts to resist your every instinct and decide in favor of your head.
To find the guts to make the call, you need to acknowledge your heart and the feelings, emotions, and beliefs that are motivating you to try just one more thing.
(If you’re a Very Serious Business Professional and are super freaked out by the last sentence, imagine that I wrote, “you need to acknowledge your cognitive biases like the sunk cost fallacy, not invented here bias, or the IKEA effect” and keep reading)
To acknowledge your heart and empower your guts, you need to say goodbye and create closure.
How to do this effectively is determined by the culture of the team and company, but here are some examples I’ve seen and been part of:
- Write the project’s eulogy
- Hold a funeral (traditional, New Orleans, Irish, or Viking all qualify)
- Have a “Reading of the Will” in which the project bequests mementos and silly awards to team members
- Create a memorial like planting a tree or, taking a cue from Ben & Jerry’s, a graveyard
- Establish an award in its name and give it out every year to a person who has shown the courage to preserve and the wisdom to know when to quit
Yes, I know this sounds silly but so does having funerals for goldfish and we do that. We do it for the same reasons we struggled to kill the project – because we love it, and we will miss it.
Just as we feel very sad but know we did the right things when we flushed the goldfish, you will feel sad but know you did the right thing when you kill the project.
And while it will never be easy, it will get easier and you will get better at killing projects (just like I did after going through 23 goldfish my senior year of college).