When to Kill a Project

“Sometimes…it’s better for a man just to walk away. But if you can’t walk away? I guess that’s when it’s tough.” — Arthur Miller

Death of a Salesman

Just a few balmy days ago, my team and I were interrupted by a bespectacled and rather bumbling man during a meeting at a coffee shop. “Umm, excuse me…” he awkwardly interjected. “Are you guys, like, entrepreneurs or something? You know, you’ve got your laptops out and everything…can I quickly run my business idea by you?” As we began to politely decline, he eagerly yanked out a chair and began to fire off his elevator pitch before his frantic ass could even hit the seat. The entire premise of his business was hinged on a series of flimsy assumptions. His idea was bad. Not to mention, he was oblivious to the existing solutions for the problem he was attempting to solve. I really wanted to tell him that he should kill his project, and that it wasn’t going to work. However, his passion and enthusiasm made me realize I was dealing with they type of entrepreneur tragically foreclosed to feedback: the desperate type. “I know this will work,” he proclaimed. “This is it. I believe it. It has to work.”

As an entrepreneur myself, I wanted to commend his confidence; startup success is partially predicated on perseverance. But that’s when I recalled an exchange from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”

Linda: Willy, dear. Talk to them again. There’s no reason why you can’t work in New York.

Willy: They don’t need me in New York. I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England.

In this scene, Willy — the titular salesman — insists to his wife that he’s a big player in his business in order to boost his sense of self-worth. Despite the fact that his sales have been slumping, Willy vehemently defends his manufactured importance. Telling this erratic man that his idea was bad would be tantamount to an insult, and he would likely internalize the criticism because of how emotionally attached to his idea he seemed.

We all know people like this — people who are working on projects that simply aren’t going to succeed. It could be a brilliant idea doomed by a lack of execution, or the brilliant execution of a doomed idea; the outcome is almost always inevitable failure. I’m talking about slow, painful (and sometimes invisible) failure that will gradually sap your time, energy and resources. The type of projects doomed for this outcome need to be killed. But that’s easier said than done..

Why Bad Projects Persist

Bad projects are hard to kill for a few reasons:

1) Emotional Attachment

People tend to get too emotionally attached to their ideas. They have a tough time putting the proverbial pen down. Especially for entrepreneurs, there’s a tendency to latch one’s identity onto a project in a pathological and symbiotic way. When the stakes are high, there seems to be an inversely proportional relationship to the person’s ability to let go of the idea, as it can give the person a sense of purpose. It drives them. And with enough time, it can even become their reality.

2) Misplaced Obligation

Some people feel obligated to see their ideas through based on sunken time, energy and resources. It’s almost as though The Zeigarnik Effect kicks in at an organizational level. If you work in a large organization, you almost certainly know of projects that exists only because “it’s the way we’ve been doing it” or “we have to because [insert authority figure] says so.” Both are equally poor reasons to continue doing anything.

3) Sheer Arrogance

Arrogance is the evil twin of resilience. Society tends lionize people like Steve Jobs and highlight their stubbornness and relentlessness in hagiographies. As such, the startup landscape is peppered with people who subscribe to the myth of unrelenting perseverance in the face of certain failure. These people are far from flexible, let alone open to criticism. Their inflated egos simply won’t let them accept that the Titanic is sinking. If you hear them cite Jobs’ “Customers don’t know what they want” or Fords’ “If I would have asked customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” abandon ship as soon as possible.

4) No Alignment

Especially in a team setting, all of the necessary stakeholders should be on the same page when deciding to shut down a project. If a handful of people still believe in it and the others can’t make a compelling case for why it should be abandoned, then projects enter into a dangerous stalemate situation.

“Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it.” — Arthur Miller

Time To Die

An objective evaluation is needed to give people the necessary lens & language to kill a project. I’m proposing a simple three-part criteria:

1) Kill a project when nobody is buying it.

This one is the most obvious. If people aren’t paying for your product/service/event, then it’s time to kill it. If you’re experiencing a decline in sales, that’s another story — that means it’s time to revaluate your strategy. Consider the possibility that you might have to kill the project if you continue to experience a decline. And the word “buying” isn’t simply relegated to financial exchange. It’s also very applicable to the idea itself — if nobody is even buying the idea, that’s also a call to consider killing the project.

2) Kill a project when nobody is using it.

Your project might not be selling anything, per se. It could be a charity event or a free web application, but if no one is actually using it, then it’s probably time to kill it. Why does it even exist? If you’ve built something that you thought people will benefit from, but no one is actually using, then it’s time to kill it.

3) Kill a project when your team doesn’t believe in it.

I love the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” No matter how much you or anyone else on the team might passionately believe in a project, passion alone isn’t enough to make it an organizational priority. If your team doesn’t believe in it, they won’t reciprocate your energy to allocate time and resources towards making your idea a reality. Therefore it’s imperative that a leader inspire their team to get behind their ideas.

The Underdog Myth

I’ll be the first person to tell you that perseverance is a key quality of the entrepreneurially-minded. But in our society we’ve made it the magic quality; we’ve conflated perseverance (and all its permutations — grit, resilience, determination, etc.) with all the other necessary qualities needed to make ideas happen. Perseverance isn’t panacea. Take every story about a project that succeeded because someone refused to give up with a grain of salt. And remember that some of the most successful people succeeded years after failing fast, and failing often. There’s no shame in failing. But there is considerable regret tied up in letting a project live longer than it should — regret over expended time, energy and resources that would’ve been better reallocated towards your next brilliant idea. Know when to cut your losses.

Better late than never.

“Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” — Arthur Miller

This post was originally published on Medium.