When Should You Pull the Plug on an Innovation Project?

History skews our perception of possibility. It’s easy to forget that man’s great achievements were mere “mights” for those on the other side of the present.

Take the Apollo 11 moon landing. Retold today, that “one giant leap for mankind” was but a series of surefooted steps taken by America’s scientists and engineers. Conquering the moon was, as many American textbooks imply, our 20th-century Manifest Destiny.

To those working on Apollo 11 in 1969, the moon landing was much different. Neil Armstrong himself gave the landing only a 50-50 chance. There were, as he argued, too many unknowns to be sure humans could land, survive even briefly on a space rock, and return home to safety.

In terms of human life, 50-50 is a rather risky bet. But in business, it’s auspicious odds. In fact, given that 90 percent of product launches fail, something with a 50-50 chance of success is an incredibly worthwhile investment.

How to Spot a Bad Shot

As the Apollo 11 team was assuredly aware, moonshots tend to fail. It’s why enterprises rely on short-term, iterative innovations to get by, but it’s also why multiple moonshots are often necessary to find a viable product. There’s no sense in sinking resources into a non-viable project, of course. But how can you know when you’ve passed the point of viability?

If you spot one or more of the following red flags, it’s probably time to pull the plug and move on to the next idea in your innovation backlog.

  1. Your team doesn’t care.

    A truly innovative project should excite your team. Those closest to it should be highly productive and happy. If your employees are losing steam, your moonshot might be in trouble.

Act quickly if you suspect your project isn’t proceeding as it should. Schedule individual meetings with team members to understand what’s wrong. Burnout happens on the individual level, but teamwide disinterest signals a greater issue.

Sometimes, that flame can be rekindled. We once worked with a Mexico-based television provider that lacked English-speaking employees. We felt frustrated by the communication barriers, and it had started to show in our work. By traveling to Mexico for implementation, our team got a booster shot of enthusiasm to finish the project.

  1. You’re missing growth targets.

    Create a growth goal for every project. It can be in terms of engagement, users, referrals, or revenue, but you need a way to numerically see whether you’re on the right path. Check out Dave McClure’s “Pirate Metrics” and “Lean Analytics” for assistance on identifying and tracking project-specific growth metrics.When reviewing your moonshot’s metrics, be honest with yourself. On a project for a New York City-based nonprofit, our metrics were weak and weren’t getting stronger. Rather than push on, we pulled back and spent our time on research sprints instead. We canned the first project in favor of a second one that addressed the same issue.

  1. Your users aren’t impressed.

Most terrible enterprise software exists because it made a financially minded voice happy. Your project needs stakeholders’ approval, sure, but it won’t get far without passionate users.

When we worked with one field services company, all early signs were positive. Our team was hitting growth targets with ease. But over time, user responses slowed. Despite their excitement in sales meetings, potential customers weren’t engaging with the product. Ultimately, because it wasn’t resonating with users, we killed the project.

Solicit feedback from users at every stage. Ardent negative feedback is much better than lukewarm positive feedback because it’s actionable. Conduct customer development interviews to determine whether the issue is with a feature or the product itself.

  1. You’ve lost internal support.

Enterprises aren’t startups. If something doesn’t look good, a corporate executive can pull the plug with a 10-minute meeting.

If you see a 10-minute meeting in your future, reevaluate your perspective. Ask doubters what they see that you don’t. Don’t defend your work. Just listen and understand why they’re nervous about the investment. Once you’ve heard their concerns, ask yourself whether the initiative is worth defending. If it’s not, proactively kill the project.

The project we canceled for that field services company faced internal pressure and lukewarm enthusiasm. Our client department received constant audits, making it clear that the project either needed to be refocused or shut down. In the end, we chose the latter.

Not every innovation idea will pan out. To those of us toting iPhones today, it may seem like the smartphone was meant to be. But at the time, Jobs was as unsure as anyone that it would succeed, and there were plenty of naysayers.

Yes, Jobs and Armstrong made incredible breakthroughs. But their real success wasn’t that they made it to the moon; it was that they ever shot for it at all.

image credit: bigstockphoto.com


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Emerson Taymor is the co-founder and managing director of Philosophie, a digital innovation firm with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. It helps large organizations validate and develop their promising ideas through agile design, rapid prototyping, and software craftsmanship. Emerson is a former instructor at General Assembly and a freelance designer in San Francisco and New York. Follow @etaymor

Emerson Taymor




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