Carry on, Pivot, or Stop?

In our rapidly changing world, organisations are compelled to adapt, adjust and transform. However, many of the well-intended change initiatives organisations embark on can struggle to create value.

Babatope: A challenge a lot of leaders face is that they are effectively stuck. Stuck in the middle of a change initiative. They are going through a change that has not proven its worth. It is not adding value, the change is not valuable change. These leaders are faced with a very difficult decision. Stick to your course and complete the change; or you write off sunk costs. Sometimes these sunk costs are in the millions. Sometimes in the tens of millions.

It is easy for outsiders to stand back and say, “just make a call!” These are tough decisions. It will be good to get your take. How would you advise leaders in this situation? Leaders who are effectively stuck. Do you write off these sunk costs? or do you keep on?

Brendon: First of all, that decision is one that I have seen change leaders face many times. Whether to ‘kill or continue’ is probably the hardest decision any leader can make, and it’s a decision that more often than not, people will get wrong. Killing a project can be messy and emotional. It means pulling apart project teams. It means dropping contracts early. It has a huge knock-on effect to the rest of the organisation as all of a sudden there’s this new capacity that wasn’t planned for. It also has a morale hit. Further, the sunk cost fallacy is very real.

The common view is that it’s often better to entirely deliver an expensive nothing rather than deal with the blowback of a half delivered expensive nothing. The expensive nothing can at least be spun into a success story of some sort – so that tends to be the preference for those in that position. Most people will protect their career optics at the expense of business outcomes.

However, here’s my advice for anyone leading change:

Do everything you can to avoid being finding yourself having to make that call. 

I’ll say this though – my advice on avoiding that situation is exactly the same as my advice to those in that position: maintain an effective change core. Your change core is made up of the 3 most important questions for any change initiative:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • How will we prove it?
  • What are we doing?

These should be answered before you even touch a project plan, and they should continue to be validated throughout delivery. The questions evolve as the project does. So let’s say you inherited a project that was on a cliff-edge. A project that was almost about to fall over, and you are facing a decision whether to kill it, or continue it. Here are the 3 steps I’d suggest you take:

First:  Go and understand the original project whyThen go and validate it. Make sure that the context hasn’t changed. Is this change still appropriate? Is this change still needed? Get the answer for that. This question should be the starting point for anyone considering whether to kill or continue. Why did we start this in the first place, and is that still valid? If the answer is no, then it’s probably time to kill the project.

Second: Figure out what proof of success should look like. How will you prove that you achieved your why? – then identify if there are any early indications of impact.  Are you actually achieving the impact that you anticipated you were going to achieve? A negative indication here isn’t usually a kill signal, but is often a source of a mid-project pivot if it looks like your initial assumptions were wrong.

Third: Reclarify what exactly you are doing, and what’s left. Then ask yourself – if we get that all done, will we achieve our original why? If not, then pivot and change scope until you’re doing things that will achieve it. If yes, then ask yourself a follow-up question – how little can we do and still achieve our why? For this clarified and reduced remaining work, ask – does it still makes sense to do all this work to achieve the why?

In short, there are only two real reasons to kill a project:

  1. The why no longer makes sense. The context has shifted, and a solution is no longer needed or viable.
  2. The assumptions upfront were wrong, and the entirety of the remaining work outweighs the original why.

Almost every other situation just requires a pivot of some sort.

Your best bet, however, is to avoid the decision entirely. You do that by asking and answering those questions above as part of your usual project oversight rhythms. I explore more on how to do that in my book – Valuable Change. 


Babatope: In summary, the valuable questions that Brendon recommends you regularly answer are:

One: Why are we doing it? (and is the why still valid?)

Two: How will we prove it? (and what do the early indicators say?)

Three: What are we doing? (and are we progressing as expected?)

There you have it; a few of Brendon’s thoughts on the challenge of leading valuable change. This was the topic of discussion in a previous episode of The Change Lead podcast. Check the links below to find our full conversation from last year, where we also discussed:

👉 The role of change leadership

👉 Value driven change

👉 Embedding learning in what we do

👉 Focus on ROI

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