Stopping Projects

At the Google CIO event at which I spoke recently, Robin Williamson gave a talk about the companies nine principals of innovation. One of these central rules (the best known being the 20% innovation time) is “morph, don't kill” innovations.
Williamson, who is one of Google's European senior engineering people, gave examples to illustrate this from the product history of retail aggregation services that Google have tried, starting with the now defunct (yet beautifully named) 'Froogal'. Last week's announcements from Mountain View about the fate of Wave were covered in the press as the death of a product, but one can already see the morphing of technologies into other product lines such as multiple concurrent authoring in Docs. (As an aside, the end of Wave as a stand alone product isn't a great surprise – when I asked folk from Google what is was for, I was never able to get a coherent answer other than something along the lines of it being a bit of an experiment).
The announcement, however, has got me thinking about the difficulties that most organisations have in either killing or morphing failing initiatives.
The disciplines of iterative software design which have now, it seems, seem to have become the most common approaches in use today have at their core the idea that you can't tell at the outset how a software project deliverable will turn out, so plan for that. However, even in iterative (or agile) methods the escape route to prevent further flogging of initiatives that are obviously dead horses can be a challenge.
This isn't, to my mind, an engineering challenge, but one of psychology and culture. If you pull together a project team to perform a task, you need them to have task completion focus. However, the sometimes talked about fifth stage of team development (Forming, storming, norming, performing and) Mourning acknowledges that the end of a project forms an emotional challenge for team members in having to face the sense of loss of no longer having involvement in either team or task. Combine this with the strong sense of corporate failure often associated with the closing down of a corporate initiative and it's easy to see why so many IT projects fail at a scale that could have been prevented with a bit of judicious early pruning.

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