Idea Management: Learning When and How to Say “Enough”

We all know intellectually that sometimes projects fail, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier when it’s our project that fails.

Person holding a coffee cup filled.

If you have ever had to scrap a project, you’re in good company. Over one-third of projects fail, either not meeting their business intent, missing timelines, or going over budget. If you think of startup businesses as projects, nine out of ten of them fail

Sometimes projects just don’t pan out, and it’s important for project managers to be able to recognize the signs of impending failure. This way they avoid falling for the sunk cost fallacy of throwing more resources at a failing project because of how much has already been invested. Here’s how to pull the plug gracefully when a project is failing.

Learn to Separate Projects from Egos (Including Your Own)

One of the main reasons why startups fail is that the founders are so fixated on their original idea that they will do everything they can to prove that they can make it work. How much better things would be if, upon realizing that an idea has flaws, teams corrected course instead of riding a sinking ship to the bottom of the ocean.

When creating project teams, it’s important to choose project leaders who not only have a track record for success but also have experience with project failure. It may sound counterintuitive, but these are the project leaders who know the perils of getting ego wrapped up in an innovative idea.

Focus on the Story the Data Tells 

If it’s up to you to break the news, it helps to focus on the data. Data doesn’t lie about whether the algorithm works, whether the materials hold up, or whether consumers want the innovative new product. By keeping the focus on the data, you can minimize the sense of personal failure people feel when a project has to be scrapped.

Two people discussing ideas while looking at documents.

Data may also tell a more positive story by helping generate ideas that have a better chance of working. Maybe the product needs to be stripped down to focus on a single feature, or maybe it could be adapted to address a particular customer pain point. Let the data help you know where to go next.

Find Ways to Pivot Based on Lessons Learned

Ending a project that isn’t working out doesn’t mean the time spent on it was wasted. There are always lessons that can be learned, many of which can deliver commercial or operational benefit. When well-planned and executed with genuine commitment, even failed projects can strengthen teams, and these teams may be better positioned to pursue a new idea.

Few innovative ideas go from concept through execution without significant changes. Did you know that Facebook started out with the intention of being a dating site? Finding the right way to pivot can lead to long-term success, even if the project that is ultimately completed bears little resemblance to the original concept.

Choosing the ideas most likely to succeed requires strong idea management. Even organizations with outstanding idea management only implement about one-fourth of ideas submitted. Failure may never roll off us like water off a duck’s back, but there are ways to know the right time to pull the plug on an idea that isn’t working out and still use the lessons learned to power future innovation. If you would like to learn more, we invite you to download our Crowdsourcing to Innovate Products white paper.

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