Not every new idea is destined to be great. Sometimes even the most promising concepts end up in the scrap pile. You probably never heard about Google Here, but the project was so big that Alphabet CEO Larry Page himself made the final decision to abandon it.
Aimed at smartphone users, Here would have allowed companies to interact with users by location. For instance, someone in a Gap clothing store might receive a limited-time discount code upon arrival. The concept had utility, but Page decided not to push forward.
Why? Because innovative as it might have been, Here wasn’t viable. Its intuition was cool, but it was clear businesses and consumers alike were wary of its potential for privacy infringement. Here’s struggles show that no project is too big to fail, but not every project fails for the same reason.
Why Tech Companies Kill Their Projects
Projects fizzle over four common factors: money, time, vision alignment, and product/market fit. Significant struggles in any of these areas can induce tech companies to pull the plug.
Money. Sometimes projects are canceled because the project’s costs balloon beyond reasonable proportions. This is usually a sign that the project’s scope has grown out of control; timelines stretch, money keeps flowing, and functionality improves, yet the project seems no nearer to completion than it did months before. And eventually, it must stop — the piggy bank holds only so many dollars.
A great example is HealthCare.gov, the national online health insurance marketplace. I’m sure the requirement list for this grew and grew. A proper deployment strategy was never put in place, and budgets ran up to $500 million, by some estimates. If the project hadn’t been executed by the federal government, then it certainly would have run out of money.
Time. Every company can find time to work on a lucrative project, but not every company has the resources necessary to complete a project quickly enough to meet the market.
Google’s brief foray into the smartphone hardware business demonstrates why time is always a factor with tech projects. Despite purchasing phone giant Motorola for $12.5 billion, Google discovered that, while it had all the capital it needed, it couldn’t become competitive quickly in a phone hardware market with already strong competition. Google sold Motorola to Lenovo for $2.91 billion just 22 months after purchasing it.
Vision alignment. Sometimes, companies come up with brilliant ideas that have nothing to do with their overall business strategies. A Home Depot executive might have a great idea for a self-driving Segway, but Home Depot isn’t in the transportation business and would confuse its client base by adding an unrelated product.
Facebook Home, for instance, was doomed almost before it began. Facebook’s business revolves around connectivity in a social sphere, not a full-fledged mobile platform. Though technically not scrapped for good (yet), Home tried and failed to carve a niche for itself in the Android-vs.-iOS market.
Poor product/market fit. A company might have all the time and money it needs, and the product might be in line with its overall strategy, but the project won’t succeed if nobody wants the result.
Take Google Glass. The idea was great: Anyone who’s seen the “Terminator” movies has wondered what it would be like to get information on things just by looking at them. The problem with Glass didn’t rest with its technology but with its inability to solve a defined need. People didn’t understand how Glass would improve their lives and (like with Google Here) worried about the social implications of using such technology.
Don’t Make a Mistake Twice
While it’s easy to criticize Google for its public failures, the company ought to be applauded for its transparency and courage. When months and millions have been dedicated to a project, it takes great maturity to say “We need to rethink this.”
But that’s exactly what leaders have to do. When people start asking questions more than finding answers, vigorously defending ideas that don’t have merit, or trying to release products without proper testing, it’s time to pull the plug.
Not every project is destined for success, but not every failure is a waste.
While not every developing technology makes it to production, companies can still minimize the resource cost of experimentation. To avoid being forced to cut projects, companies should start small and test often; hold team retrospectives on projects; find inspiration in old concepts; and be willing to walk away when failure seems apparent.
Before you start engineering a project, sit down with your team and brainstorm, writing out answers to ensure you’ve addressed the four factors listed above. How will you keep costs low? Does the project fit into our overall strategy? What customer need does it solve? Once you’ve started building, review the project often. Bring in prospective consumers for user testing. Some problems don’t crop up until later in a project’s lifecycle.
Then, let everyone take a step back and look at the project in its entirety. Don’t just focus on the end result; focus on the process. Reflect honestly: Is anybody on the team spending far more time on the project than he’d budgeted? Examine costs: Are you projected to go over budget? If so, what’s working and what isn’t?
Don’t be afraid to repurpose concepts. When somebody stumbles upon a time-saving trick or cost-saving measure while engineering the project, share it with the team and try it in new scenarios. What challenges have you conquered in previous projects, and how might they apply here? Innovation doesn’t always come from brand new concepts — taking an old concept and applying it to a new area can be enough.
Finally, be willing to walk away when you see the warning signs. Don’t fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. Learn your lesson, cut your losses, and thank your team for its work. The longer an unsustainable project lasts, the harder it will be to end.
Not every project is destined for success, but not every failure is a waste. Google Here might be dead, but the ideas within it will undoubtedly be incorporated into other projects. Don’t think of killing your projects as final judgments but as opportunities to find new areas to succeed.