Peter Drucker and abandoning projects

I’ve been reading Inside Drucker’s Brain, Jeffrey Krames’ book about the late management guru Peter Drucker. The book is not a biography, though it contains some interesting biographical material, but is primarily a summary of Drucker’s ideas.

One thing that stands out is how often Drucker used the word “abandon.” For example, Krames quotes Drucker as follows.

The first step in a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow. It is to decide what to abandon. In order to grow, a business must have a systematic policy to get rid of the outgrown, the obsolete, the unproductive.

Later he quotes Drucker again saying

It cannot be said often enough that one should not postpone; one abandons.

And again,

Don’t tell me what you’re doing, tell me what you’ve stopped doing.

It can be a tremendous relief to abandon a project. Not just passively neglect it, but actively decide to abandon it.  The practical result is the same — the project doesn’t get done — but deliberate abandonment eliminates guilt and frees up emotional energy. However, abandonment takes courage.

Organizational structure makes it hard for some businesses to ever abandon projects. If a project is killed, the person who kills it takes the heat. But if the project dies of natural causes, another person, someone further down the org chart, may take the blame instead. Under such circumstances, projects are not abandoned often.

If you’re convinced that you need to abandon projects, at least occasionally, how do you know what to abandon and when? Seth Godin wrote a good book on this topic, The Dip. The subtitle is “A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick).”

Update: See Johanna Rothman’s discussion Abandoning vs. Killing Projects.

10 thoughts on “Peter Drucker and abandoning projects

  1. I think the economy is going to force a lot of businesses to re-think abandoning projects, business lines, you name it.

    I hate to be cynical, but organizations change when they feel the heat, not when they see the light.

  2. As a former software engineer for a telecom company, I recall many colossal projects that merely enhanced features of dubious value, and yet came with huge price tags for the consumer. We had to wonder, “Who will pay for this over-priced feature?!” and “How much is this project costing the company?!” Voice-activated dialing, etc. etc.

    Naturally, we appreciated the work while it lasted, but I would have been prouder to work on smarter, more helpful, more efficient projects that would stand the test of time.

  3. Would stopping further development and support of a software product, without publicly announcing that it’s been discontinued and still let people buy the product qualify as abandonment/killing?
    I mean, when you buy a product (not necessarily software one), you pay for the features you get now, not for the features you might receive in the feature, unless otherwise explicitly advertised.

  4. I think what you describe would be abandoning features of a project without abandoning the entire project. Or cutting your losses — we’re going to go ahead and sell it and make what money we can, but we’re not going to invest in promoting it.

    For internal projects, I’ve seen situations where it’s OK to abandon a project, just not OK to say that you’re abandoning it. Sometimes people don’t really need or want the final result of their project, but they want to know somebody’s working on it. So the project stays on the books but nobody work on it any everyone’s happy.

  5. John,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on my question.
    In my case, there are no losses to cut (though, no big profits to rip either). I just feel it’s time to move on, but don’t want to deprive myself of that little income I have before I decide what to do next.

  6. I started ‘abandoning’ more a couple of years back rather than let things sit in my head and take up space. It’s shocking to people to talk in those terms. It feels like every time it comes up in conversation, “I [abandoned|quit|stopped|…] doing …” the moment takes on a come-to-jesus flavor. So, sadly, I’m more reluctant to talk specifically about what I am and am not working on.

  7. I know the feeling, guys! I had to get out of consulting and put several personal projects on hold just to get the chance to take a breath.

  8. It takes courage, especially since you may never know if abandoning it was the right decision.

    Who’s going to pat you on the shoulder and say, “It’s ok, quitter. I understand you just needed to quit. Sometimes it’s just fine to give up–ya quitter.”

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