Easing the Withdrawal Process

A three-stage process for smoother sunsetting of programs and products.

Well-run associations seek return on investment from every project and demonstrate return on their members' investments in the association. But often we find ourselves with projects and programs where we cannot demonstrate positive ROI. Some may never have been successful; some may have outlived their usefulness; some may have even rendered themselves obsolete through success. Whatever the reason, the project is no longer worthy of continued investment—but it's still around because somebody loves it. How do you close it down without causing hard feelings?

Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at the Cornell University graduate school of management, is coauthor of Diversity-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity. She recently shared her thoughts on how association executives can shut down projects gracefully, using a three-step process.

Map Your Stakeholders

When sunsetting programs or projects, McGrath recommends mapping stakeholders in terms of their involvement in the program and the amount of suffering or benefit they would experience after it ends. See chart below.

Map Your Stakeholders

Stage 1: Reckoning. "Most associations have more going on than they can possibly handle," McGrath says. She recommends a complete portfolio review every year or two, in which all major projects are assessed.

"Look at all of your association's activities and map them to your mission," she suggests. One important consideration is that all potential stakeholders must buy into the process before reckoning even begins.

Then, McGrath suggests, examine projects one by one, answering these questions:

  • Does this initiative support our mission?
  • Do we have enough resources to continue the project?
  • Is the project feasible? Effective?
  • What population does it serve?

This questioning process—which, McGrath says, is very subjective—will reveal the programs and projects that should be on the association's "cut list."

Stage 2: Politics. During this stage, McGrath recommends creating a "stakeholder map" that shows who will be affected, and how, by the project shutdown. Then, create a two-column by two-column grid that assesses impact on those stakeholders, depending on their involvement with the project (as shown below). Their position in the matrix provides clues to how to navigate the process with them.

The people in Quadrant A—usually overburdened staffers—are those whose support you need most critically. Be creative about how to fill holes for them, if any, and ameliorate the negatives. Stakeholders in Quadrant C "can be mobilized with a specific action plan," says McGrath.

Stakeholders located in Quadrant D are "sleeping dogs; let them lie," McGrath advises. Those in Quadrant B will be your most vocal opponents. Your disengagement plan should include specific actions based on what it will take to "make them whole," says McGrath—through persuasion, negotiation, neutralization, or other, more costly methods.

Stage 3: Making the change. Three elements are crucial in this stage: the level of dissatisfaction with the project shutdown, the clarity of your vision for the post-transformation state of the association, and the thoroughness with which you have cleared away obstacles to the shutdown. The effectiveness—and gracefulness—of your project shutdown depends on having all of these elements in place. "Your change effort is at risk if you are missing any one," says McGrath.

Try not to take the natural demise of a project personally. "We are taught from childhood that negative outcomes are undesirable and that we should always have the right answers," says McGrath. "The path to innovation and growth is littered with negative outcomes, but they don't always mean failure.

"You're better off just getting to the bottom line."

Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer in McLean, Virginia. Email: [email protected]