Pulling the plug on an in-flight project is hard. No one wants to be the person calling it quits, offending team members and admitting defeat. It is this mentality, however, that ends up sucking the life out of resources and budgets and setting the organization up for continued failure because the process is broken. How can you ensure only the right projects survive, wrong ones are killed early and lessons are celebrated after an appropriate mourning period? It’s going to take courage.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana is something to behold. With parades and celebrations full of jazz music, food, spirits, and costumes, few leave without gaining a couple of pounds and several stories. My Mardi Gras hangover cure did not involve the traditional greasy breakfast with an aspirin chased by a strong cup of chicory coffee. Instead it was delivered via the brilliant idea Brandon Rowberry of United Healthcare Group shared at the recent Frost & Sullivan Innovation in NPD & Marketing conference in New Orleans. Brandon discussed how his team had a product that just wouldn’t die. They would launch it to less than rave reviews, bring it back inside for tweaks, and then re-launch it only to have it fail again. Not wanting to forfeit, the team tried in vain to make it work until someone finally had the courage to put a stake in it and call it what it was – dead.

Where most organizations flatline

Failure isn’t always bad if you can use what you’ve learned to do better.

Every company has had that “perfect” idea they were certain was a winner and it just didn’t make it. The emotional attachment clouds your perspective and you don’t want to give up on something that required so much energy, time, money, creativity, and resources. It is sad, hurts and egos take a hit. Rowberry’s remedy shook me out of my Mardi Gras stupor as it was proper and perfect: He held a funeral. He gathered the entire project team, everyone who had touched the product in its rocky history, met them in the auditorium and had a funeral. An executive even gave a eulogy. People mourned the loss but also focused on what they learned: failure isn’t always bad if you can use what you’ve learned to be better. The funeral brought closure so all felt it appropriate to walk away and move on.

The image of this funeral made me think of my surroundings in New Orleans. The perfect frame of reference for killing a product or project was to not only have a funeral, but a jazz funeral. For those unfamiliar, locals often have jazz funerals for their dead. On the way to the cemetery, it is mournful jazz with a somber tone. It is the time to grieve the loss. After the dead have been buried, however, the jazz turns upbeat as those closest to the dead celebrate the impact the person had on their lives.

We can do the same thing with our killed projects and products. The realization that a project needs to be killed may at first seem painful, but having a clear process to allow for its proper burial brings immediate relief.

Do You Have the Courage to Kill a Project?

Changing your perspective on the kill from a tragedy to a victory can change the circumstance. You tried hard and did the best you could, but learn from it and realize the positive impact it had on your team, your brand, and your company. You learned what doesn’t work so you can do better the next go around. As one of my idols, Dr. Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, you do better.” By having the courage to make the kill, you saved time and money, reallocated resources to winning products, and released the mental energy being consumed by keeping the project on life support. Hooray! Strike up the band!

If you have no method or process to assess a project’s worth as it relates to corporate strategy and ROI, you are likely pushing too many products through the pipeline.

You might be asking yourself, “How do we know for certain a project should be killed?” Answering this simple question is often a struggle for development teams. In Planview’s Fourth Product Portfolio Management Benchmark Study more than half of the 514 companies surveyed admitted they are not killing projects early enough in the commercialization process. The leading causes for this pain are related to a lack of visibility:

  1. The kill criteria are unclear or nonexistent
  2. There is a lack of rigor in determining the highest return, highest value products

If you have no (or an inadequate) method or process to assess a project’s worth as it relates to corporate strategy and ROI, you are likely pushing too many products through the pipeline and wasting money.

There is a softer side to consider when it comes to killing a project but no less challenging. No one wants to hurt the feelings of innovators or give up on a project that has already consumed so many resources. The gated review process some companies use to provide checks and balances have no “teeth” and too many projects get passed through without anyone saying, “No.” A consumer goods manufacturer surveyed in the Benchmark Study summed it up best: “We are not killing products early enough or often enough. A recent example is a product we should have killed six months earlier than we did. By the time we did, we had sunk about $1.2M opportunity cost and other related costs into it.”

According to the Benchmark study, the likelihood with which leadership will have the courage and metrics to kill lower-opportunity products is directly related to how well the product portfolio aligns with the organization’s strategies and objectives. Access to good data, such as resource capacity and prioritization, is critical in making the decisions required to confidently pull the plug on underperforming products.

When we dare to innovate, we must understand not every idea will make it to a ripe old age.

Life after death

With every project that is killed, lessons can be learned to make the death a little easier to bear. There are three suggestions to build confidence in any organization:

  1. Aligning the portfolio with corporate strategies requires maturity. Organizations must invest in Product Portfolio Management solutions that provide insight into the portfolio, including time-to-completion, project costs, and resource capacity and availability. They help companies grow in maturity, much more so than manual, static spreadsheets, siloed tools not integrated with other business applications or shared among departments and teams. When you have the right tools and are utilizing good data, you have visibility into project metrics, scorecards, roadmaps and performance markers that make prioritizing projects objective and clear cut.
  2. Organizations must change their culture so a product’s success or failure is not considered personal and feelings are not a metric. Product development companies and team leaders cannot be afraid of failure. They need to raise their cup of tea (or white flag) high into the air and call it like it is – dead. It takes courage and a willingness to forego popularity for the sake of the success of the organization.
  3. Change must come from the top. A clear strategy should be defined by executives and communicated enterprise-wide so every employee is working towards those set objectives. A project’s value is much easier to determine when the corporate strategy is the bar to which everything is measured.

The jazz funeral deals with the emotional side while celebrating the life lived, however short it may have been. When we dare to innovate, we must understand not every idea will make it to a ripe old age. Some ideas are meant to die young but teach us lessons that equip us with the knowledge to make future decisions with confidence. Take a hard look at your portfolio. What projects are on life support and draining resources? It might just be the time to make funeral arrangements.

By Carrie Nauyalis

About the author

Carrie Nauyalis, NPD Solution Evangelist at Planview, is passionate about establishing customer partnerships, developing market positioning, defining field enablement strategies, providing market-based feedback into Planview product development, and being an overall evangelist and thought leader for the Product Development market. She is an active speaker, MBA guest lecturer, blogger, and vlogger on all things Product Portfolio Management, with warm places in her heart for the topics of innovation, Stage-Gate, and Agile.

Follow Carrie on Twitter: @PDPMprincess

Photo Vector illustration of grieving by