How to Break Up with an Innovation Project11 August, 2015 / Articles
Breaking up isn’t easy — especially if you are a leader “breaking up with” an innovation project that one of your teams still believes in passionately. It is a critical part of the innovation journey however, and done well can produce a positive outcome across the board.
Consider a conversation that might start like this:
“We need to talk,” she says.
There’s only one way this conversation ends, you think, but you paste a smile on your face and reply, “Sure. What’s up?”
“We seem to be stuck,” she says. “When we started it all seemed so perfect. But now every time we talk it is about the problems we face.”
“We just need more time,” you say. “We will get through this and come out the other side stronger. Remember why we started this in the first place?”
“Absolutely,” she says. “The story. Our story. It gave me chills the first time I heard it. I believed. And I still believed after you told me to wait and have faith six months ago. And three months ago. But we have to come to grips with reality. That vision we both believed in is an illusion. The data doesn’t lie. Think of the other things we both could be doing instead. We had some great times, and I don’t regret them at all.”
“But,” she finishes with authority, “it is time.”
And the project breakup process has begun.
Investors in startups have it comparatively easy. Breakup happens by default because the cash coffers run dry. Sure, investors need to have tough conversations about the need to change directions or make personnel changes, but there is no ambiguity when the end comes.
In contrast, rhythms inside organizations mean that ideas that are sanctioned tend to take on lives of their own. Further, strong penalties for failing to deliver against commitments make it in everyone’s interest to keep pushing ahead.
Any time you commission an innovative project, failing to achieve your commercial objectives is a real possibility. The more innovative the idea, the more it by definition rests on assumptions that may or may not pan out. The tools and techniques developed over the past decade around managing those assumptions, coupled with dramatic decreases in the cost of developing and testing ideas means you can learn much more efficiently than before, but that doesn’t change the fact that a good idea in theory might not be a good idea in reality. Customers rarely do what you expect them to. A promised benefit that worked in the lab might not work at any kind of commercial scale. A beautiful economic model in Excel might turn out to be an ugly one in reality.
Not every idea is destined for greatness. When it is clear an idea isn’t going to make the cut, perpetuating it can sap your organization’s innovation capacity and energy.
It can be hard for teams working on ideas to view the situation objectively. In the fog of innovation, data are rarely crystal clear. Every parent knows the biases that set in around things you played a part in conceiving. And it is far too easy for decision-makers to get seduced by the passion a team has for an idea.
The nameless executive above did an artful job of breaking up with the innovation project they were overseeing. Notice three key lines:
“The data doesn’t lie.” It is far easier to breakup with an idea if you’ve been clear from the beginning about what success looks like, and have brought rigor to the process of experimenting around key unknowns. You never know for sure when you experiment, but you always should have HOPE – a hypothesis, objective, prediction, and execution plan to measure and test the prediction. That gives you the best chance of having an honest conversation about your idea.
“Think of the other things we both could be doing instead.” Opportunity costs are real. Executives should never look at an idea in isolation, because there will always be an argument for pushing on. Making clear that there are other more attractive opportunities both for corporate resources and the team itself makes the breakup more palatable.
“We had some great times, and I don’t regret them at all.” Every time you innovate, Rita Gunther McGrath reminds us, two good things can happen. First, you can deliver some kind of commercial or operational benefit. Alternatively you can learn something that enables a future commercial or operational benefit. That learning could be about a market or a technology, but it also could be about how you do the work of innovating inside your organization. Maybe a team learned how to execute a particular type of experiment, or found a vendor that is particularly useful (or one that should be avoided). Capture that learning and recognize that something truly useful has happened.
Breaking up is never easy, but just like human relationships, when done constructively the net result is almost always positive. And it is an essential step, so that time and attention can be redirected toward new ideas. Don’t let the fear of confrontation stop these potentially positive outcomes.