Hope creep

The R&D leadership of a large Integrated Oil & Gas Major struggled with this question at one of our recent workshops: “How do you end someone’s favorite project?”

Large R&D and product development organizations need to balance a portfolio of innovations, and they constantly face trade-offs between different projects that look more or less promising at different stages. This particular Oil & Gas R&D leadership team coined a new phrase, based on the common project management concept of “scope creep” (when project scope gradually expands beyond the budgeted resources): they referred to their conundrum as “hope creep”. The leaders observed that the more a researcher has invested time and effort into a project, and  the more he or she has looked forward to success down the line, the harder it becomes to then admit that “this will not work out”. They ask themselves: “What if I try this or that little tweak? It might still work.” At every stage, a little more hope creeps in.

We started resolving the question of how to end a pet project by looking more deeply into the researchers’ motivations. What kept them hopeful? In addition to regret for the sunk cost (the resources already spent), we came up with: the desire to publish and build reputation; the desire to contribute to something that will make a meaningful difference to the company.

We then used these three “sources of hope creep” as starting points for change. Once a compelling case can be made that the current project is unlikely to have as much pay-off as potential new ones, what conversations are useful? Can the regret of the sunk cost be balanced with the opportunity cost: is there a clear case that the researcher’s future time would be spent more productively on a new project? Can the desire to publish still be satisfied, e.g., by publishing lessons learned from the discontinued project, and/or by publishing about the new one? Can the desire for impact be satisfied by the principle that we must focus our scarce time and resources where we believe we have most likelihood to succeed – and that we are doing the right thing by adapting our assessment of that likelihood all the time, as we learn more about each project?

When learning becomes a critical source of pride and motivation, decisions to end projects can be just a little bit less difficult.