When Is the Right Time to “Kill” a Product?

The new product development process can be fascinating, joyful, and inspiring – or sometimes leave you feeling like you’re stuck in the weeds. When it’s just not working, when do you decide to pull the plug? At Eidson & Partners, we’ve helped any number of clients make the decision to kill a project and stop the bleeding. In fact, we think knowing when to move on is one of the most underrated skills in product development.

But how do you know when it’s time to kill a new product? A recent article from McKinsey’s Bias Busters takes on that question and got us thinking about our own approach to those tough decisions.

Sorting the Weeds from the Seeds

Bias Busters asks, when “you’re keen on encouraging enthusiasm for innovation and letting a thousand flowers bloom, how do you sort the weeds from the seeds?” Research shows that product developers often have a hard time killing a project, especially if they’ve had recent success. The temptation is to believe that, given enough time and resources, every idea can be turned into gold.

But cycling through the stages of product development can be quite costly, and learning to “sort the weeds” can make a major impact on your bottom line, allowing you to allocate resources to projects with a brighter future.

I think making the decision to end a project should start with evaluating the original assumptions made about the product and the market. Is there a real, specific need for this solution? Is there a target market that wants this product? The sooner a company can test their original assumptions with honest feedback from the marketplace, the better.

The Four Steps to the Epiphany

Steve Blank’s book The Four Steps to the Epiphany presents a new version of the product development cycle that centers the customers for whom a product is being created. Instead of building in a vacuum based on predictions about consumer behavior and interests before releasing a “finished” product to an uncertain market, this model involves actual customers at every stage of the process.

Blank’s four steps are:

  1. Customer Discovery (SEARCH) →
  2. Customer Validation (SEARCH) →
  3. Customer Creation (EXECUTION) →
  4. Company Building (EXECUTION)

By heavily involving targeted consumers in the first three steps, Blank ensures that the final step works for both a company and its target audience. The cycle of consumer-led discovery, validation, and creation ultimately leads to a “transition from learning and discovery to a well-oiled machine for execution.”

Listening to Consumers

Honest feedback is the key. As we recently wrote about missed opportunities and vision for the future, “vision is less about attempting to look relentlessly forward and more about listening to what people want and need.” When we allow ourselves to be guided by feedback from the customers we serve, we increasingly serve them better and align ourselves with their wants and needs, providing a clear path to the future.

If your product development process feels stuck in the weeds, involve consumers! Solicit honest feedback at each stage of development, then listen and respond. When you need to make a decision about whether to kill a product or continue to invest in it, your customer’s voices will be your best guide.


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