Your Project Deserves a Good Death
Most of the people I know are compulsive starters. We constantly create new projects, companies, organizations, and events; sometimes, we even get roped into adopting other people’s projects and entities. Some of these start as late-night jokes with friends we want to spend more time with, some are the next logical steps in our careers. Some are born out of frustration-fueled insight; some even become the thing that defines us for the rest of our lives.
Almost all of them will not be the last thing we start.
When and if any of these projects take off — if people come to your impromptu event, use your slapdashed prototype, or start participating in your movement — you’ll often find an overwhelming pressure to keep it going. We have this idea that real success is measured in growth and longevity. That if you do something well once, you should be so grateful that you should do it again, and bigger, and for as long as you can. As entrepreneurs and organizers, this idea is deeply ingrained into our social norms: our projects and companies are actually evaluated on whether they have ambitious growth forecasts and plans for sustainability. But there are lots of external constraints on the growth and life of projects other than your ability to make them succeed — not least your own enthusiasm, tolerance, and availability.
The unfortunate flip-side of a growth-obsessed culture is that we equate project endings with failures. We talk about project death with the same hushed tones and awkward euphemisms as we do death or broken relationships, which is to say that we try not to talk or think about it at all.
All of this means that we are generating a huge number of projects and entities that don’t need to last forever without doing an adequate job of planning for these many inevitable ends. And so we avoid ending things altogether. We drag projects along well past their usefulness. We don’t give them proper closure because thinking about them makes us feel guilty, and announcing them makes us feel weak. Instead they quietly disappear, unmemorialized and undocumented.
There are many types of undignified deaths for projects and entities, such as:
- The Indefinite Life Support: when the annual notice comes in that it’s time to renew your domain, you hesitate for a moment. But then you click “yes”, because the alternative (confronting the gap between reality and your ~*vision*~ for the project) is too much to deal with on a Tuesday afternoon in between meetings. Throw up an apologetic “I know I haven’t posted here in quite some time, but stay tuned!” tweet, mumble some promises you keep 1/8 of, and forget about the whole thing until next year.
- The Evil Stepmother: you didn’t kill your project/company, but you sold or gave it to someone who probably will. Potentially financially lucrative, but at the cost of being extremely disrespectful to your users, stakeholders, and the legacy of your work.
- The Jar-Jar Binks: you know the saying “quit while you’re ahead”? You didn’t, and now the project or entity has morphed into something unrecognizable and possibly contradictory to your original purposes.
- The Marathon: the guilt carries you through the last few miles. You do everything you’re supposed to so that the project or company can be wrapped up nicely, but exhaust yourself to the point of physical damage, and/or burn out in the process.
- The Titanic: you’ve sworn up and down that you’ll never let go, but an abrupt collision with reality — or an opportunity you can’t refuse — leads to a hasty closure. You didn’t explain the warning flags to your users or stakeholders (or totally didn’t see them coming yourself) until it was beyond too late, and so everyone has to deal with an extremely rude awakening. Truly, the worst of all worlds.
Endings don’t have to be failures, but if they almost certainly will be if you don’t plan for them.
Here’s the secret: endings are actually kind of awesome.
No organization is started with the hope that it will become an antiquated behemoth that blocks progress with bureaucratic bloat — they calcify over time. Accepting the possibility of the end means periodically taking a critical look at your work and recognizing when its time has passed. Letting go of a project or an organization returns all of the resources it’s tying up — funding, attention, time, the emotional labor contributed by you and others — to the ecosystem. Whether by you or others, those resources will be recombined into new, surprising forms. Calcify not like a kidney stone but like coral: announce that your work is done so that others can build on your accomplishments.
The end of something, when unrushed and deliberate, is a time for celebration as well as closure. It’s an opportunity to reflect back on everything that’s happened, good and bad, and how it’s affected you. The end is a chance to tell the project’s whole story, a chance for the community you built to celebrate how they came together in the first place, and for everyone to exchange contact information and pack up their things. It’s a time to say goodbye and thank you, and then look ahead.
In palliative care, a “good death” is one that comes as peacefully as possible, honors the wishes of the patient, and burdens loved ones least. Good deaths require honest, often painful, conversations — well in advance of things turning south.
Organizations, projects, and communities deserve good deaths, too. Whether what you’re building is just a twinkle in your eye or already a dustbin for guilt, take the time to have the conversation with yourself and your team about your values, goals, and priorities. What does a Do Not Resuscitate look like for your organization? How can you help yourself remember the hard, important choices when things get complicated? Make an imaginary plan for what you would do if you had to shut everything down or step away tomorrow. Chances are, planning for the end will dislodge something important and true about your project’s life, as well.
Christina Xu is an organizational designer, ethnographer, and enabler based in New York.