The "Stop-Doing" Project Abandonment Strategy

Matthew May

In a recent interview, Campbell Soup CEO Douglas Conant defined his mission in taking the helm eight years ago as "to take a ‘bad’ company and lift its performance to ‘extraordinary’ by 2011." In 2001, Campbell was indeed without clear direction and had no innovation strategy. Conant's strategy was simple enough: developing or keeping only products that ranked first or second in three major categories. It’s a strategy that immediately brings to mind the project abandonment strategy employed by former GE CEO Jack Welch. And it’s the project abandonment strategy Peter Drucker delivered to Welch and GE’s board of directors shortly after Welch took the reins of the then vastly diversified and bloated company.

Leading Project Abandonment Practitioners

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Conant lists Drucker and Jim Collins as his favorite management thinkers. Most people familiar with the work of these two gentlemen know of their connection through the story of how Collins drove to Drucker’s home in Claremont, California, to seek some career advice. Collins, commenting on Conant’s selling the Godiva chocolate brand in 2008, said "That gets my attention, when someone has the discipline to let go of what doesn’t fit."

The Benefits of Effective Project Abandonment

What all of these individuals share is the subtractive mindset and a belief in the power and discipline of a "stop-doing" project abandonment strategy. In the throes of his early post-Stanford Business School career at Hewlett-Packard, Collins’ favorite former professor reproached him for a lack of discipline. An expert in creativity and innovation, she told him his hard-wired energy level was riding over his mental clarity, enabling a busy yet unfocused life. Her words rang true; at the time, Collins was aggressively chasing his carefully-set stretch goals for the year, confident in his ability to accomplish them. Still, his life was crowded with the commotion of a fast-tracking career. Her comment made him pull up short and re-examine what he was doing. To help, she did what great teachers do, constructing a lesson in the form of an assignment she called "20-10": Imagine that you’ve just inherited $20 million free and clear, but you only have 10 years to live. What would you do differently—and specifically, what would you stop doing? How would you practice project abandonment?

Effective Project Abandonment Will Change a Process for the Better

The exercise did precisely what it was intended to do—make Collins stop and think about what mattered most to him. It was a turning point. First, he realized he’d been racing down the wrong track, spending enormous energy on the wrong things. In fact, he woke up to the fact that he hated his job. He promptly began his project abandonment strategy by quitting and headed back to Stanford to launch a new career of research, teaching and writing. He would later visit Drucker seeking counsel on the ins and outs of this new direction.

Effective Project Abandonment Means Choosing What is Important in the Big Picture

The assignment became a constant reminder of just how important and precious his time is. He now starts each year by choosing what not to do; and each of his to-do lists always includes "stop-doing" items. Collins preaches his practice, impressing upon his audiences that they absolutely must have a "stop-doing" project abandonment list to accompany their to-do lists. As a practical matter, he advises developing a strong discipline around first giving careful thought to prioritizing goals and objectives, then eliminating the bottom 20 percent of the list and abandons those projects…forever.

Project Abandonment Done Well Leads to Success

The strategy helped Collins identify which factors led the companies he was studying to become "great" while others remained merely "good." The great companies routinely eliminated activities and pursuits that did not significantly contribute to the following criteria: profit, passion and perfection. Profit meant engaging in only the activities that would result in value for both the company and the customer. Passion meant having a sense of noble purpose beyond just making money. And perfection meant focusing on flawlessly executing each task in such a way as to make the competition irrelevant. All three criteria had to be met in order for any activity to remain in these great companies’ repertoires.

Jim Collins made the "stop doing" argument in an eloquent 2003 year-end essay appearing in USA Today:

"A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit—to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort—that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company, or most important of all, a life."

The subtractive, stop-doing strategy presents a completely different way of thinking about business, work, and the world. In fact, it offers an altogether unique reality that may just hold the key to how we survive the current economic crisis.