Homicidal Innovation

Another sleepless night at the desk of the “Product Guy”. If anyone is reading this in the wee hours of the morning when I post it – please take solace in the fact that you’re not alone.

So, what’s on tap for tonight’s post?  Homicidal Innovation.

How many times do you hear this during your day-to-day lives, in the semi-annual short term strategy session and/or the long-range, multi-day planning meeting?

“We just can’t get anything done because insert offending department name here (usually IT) can’t deliver what we need on time.”

“We need to cull our project list.”

“We pulled half the projects off the list and we’re still no better off!”

I won’t bore you with another overly detailed portfolio management discussion but I will remind everyone that there are more portfolio management strategies than you can shake a stick at – seriously, there are – I stood here for hours in front of my library shaking my stick and I didn’t even get 10% of the way through!

So what’s my secret?

I’ve followed these simple rules my whole career, and for the organizations I served that enabled the process – well we did great things together.  For the bulk of them that were paralyzed with fear and indecision – you can probably guess what happened there.

Maybe it’s the combination of red wine and Craisins or maybe it’s just a simple epiphany but tonight I coined the term “Homicidal Innovation” to describe my process.  Heretofore it had no name.  

As we all know, a homicidal maniac is not aware of their actions – they often commit their heinous crimes without being conscious of them. For those faint-of-heart, I apologize for the overly graphic nature of my analogy – but for those that know me – you know how much I love to really drive a point home using wildly intense imagery or language when I’m really invested in an idea.

Just like our maniac, we too can practice innovation homicide without necessarily employing much conscious thought at all.  No this is not a method I use for day-to-day portfolio management – nay.  This is a technique used only when a portfolio is in dire straights.  When it means the difference between insolvency and success.

We’re all familiar with the various representations of a 2×2 plot.  We can rank our projects on any scale, using any criteria and many of us have over the years.  But this is a special 2×2 tool. It’s deadly accurate and effective.

This fairly standard and innocuous plot is probably a variation on one you’ve seen or one you have used personally but it’s simplicity is sublime when used properly.  

The Method

1) The first step in using this grid in our project killing fields is to use any documented scoring approach you can find in any reputable text.  THIS IS KEY.

Don’t make one up on your own – that process will die in committee whilst you argue over the applicability of your measurements to the current business model.  Which ever one you pick, make sure that the scoring methodology plots in alignment with this grid – if not, you simply need to reverse the scores or reverse the grid.  In other words, some methods will have the “Truly Strategic” box in the upper right hand corner while others will place it in the upper left.  Regardless (no irregardless is not a word – please stop using it if you do) the only thing that matters is that truly strategic projects and incremental maintenance projects are on a diagonal with the high risk/high reward and low risk/low reward projects on the opposing diagonal such that they maintain the relative relationship noted above.

2) Have ALL YOUR STAKEHOLDERS and you score all active and all pending projects on your list. I mean all of them.  I don’t care if you’re 63 weeks into an 80 week project – score it.

3) Plot your results using Excel so as to make it look aesthetically pleasing.  Making things look nice accomplishes two things.  First, if you’re going to present data to a product steering committee or similar august body you want to make sure that all barriers to seeing the empirical evidence are removed.  I can’t tell you how many times my peers have brought very compelling evidence to suggest an obvious course of action only to be undermined by a poor presentation of the facts. Second, if you use something like Excel you’re less likely to have plotting errors than if you try to build it in PowerPoint of Visio by hand.  For my Open Source friends – you can use LibreOffice or something equivalent.  If anyone finds a discrepancy in your data or your representation of the data – you’re done – invalidated.

4) Start killing.

But what do I kill?


Once you’ve plotted your projects you might have a distribution that looks like this one.  I made up six projects for this example.  You will likely have tens if not hundreds of them, so plot it big!

Anything that lands in the “Red Zone” don’t think about it, just kill it.  I don’t even usually look at the time horizon of these efforts because (a) given that less than 60% of projects ever deliver on time – the published completion date is only accurate less than 3 out of 5 times.  Second, unless it’s done inside of a few weeks, the overall value is so low anyway, it’s one of those projects that should never have left the gate to begin with.

Next is the yellow zone.  These are typically really risky, really volatile projects that could pay off big but usually have a 1 in 10 or less chance of success.  I usually sub-divide this quadrant again into four sections and kill anything that’s not in the lower right hand corner of yellow.

Third, cull the Green Zone.  These are the projects that should deliver great return but require a lot of time and effort.  Make sure you’re properly resourced.  I often take just those projects and re-score them again to pear them down farther.  If at all possible, keep as many greens as you can.

Lastly, the lime green zone.  This one is lime green because they’re all usually valuable and all usually easy but there’s always a bit of tartness to go along with them.  I once again sub-divide this zone and usually keep only those in the upper left hand quadrant.

My Results

One group I joined back in the post .COM bubble era had a project list of over 400.  I used this process and I was able to pear it down to less than 40.  Now truth be told, they didn’t kill all of my recommended projects and we eventually got through it but it was a partial implementation of the process and while it wasn’t as expedient or efficient, we still got more projects done in less time than ever before and started making money again.  

The keys to success

1) Trust the process – don’t second guess the scores and don’t let others
2) Stick to your guns – no one likes a flip-flopper and you’ll lose more respect if you aren’t committed to the plan than if you try to appease people by softening the approach
3) Make sure you kill responsibly – don’t just start ripping projects off peoples desks.  Develop a project closure communication plan and roll it out methodically.  Many people will have worked many hours on initiatives you’re going to be killing.  To keep the hearts and minds, kill with compassion and make sure that people know they’re valuable and what they will be working on next and why the new project is far more valuable to the company than what you just pulled them off of.


P.S.  I know that 1 and 2 in the keys to success are essentially the same thing – they’re just that important though 🙂

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