One of my coaching clients had an interesting dilemma. It’s a problem that many face that needs careful handling so you don’t risk your career or come off as the “bad guy”.

Too often, organizations are better at starting things than ending them, whether they’re client events, training programs, or meetings. And once they’ve begun, they so easily become part of the norm even when they no longer serve the original purpose.

In my client’s case, she’s responsible for putting together an annual event that requires a giant amount of effort. While popular at the start, the event now delivers very little payoff. It's hurting her relationship with others in her organization when she asks for help because people no longer want to be a part of the project. And she didn’t know how to talk to her boss without upsetting or disappointing him.

Allowing things to continue on autopilot clogs up the system and distracts people from doing their best work. Sort of like the way clutter builds up in your office or at home. Things come in but fewer things go out.

While maybe you can live with the clutter and be perfectly happy, when it comes to work-related projects, meetings and tasks, the inability to weed out the old to make room for the new can be hugely counterproductive because so many more resources are at stake.

When you know the company would be better off without a particular project, event or regular meeting going yet another round, here are three things you can do to “kill” it without risking your career or otherwise coming off as the “bad guy”.

  1. Focus on the facts
  2. Craft the story
  3. Suggest a new way forward

Let the facts be the foundation

Whether it’s a business setting or something in the rest of your life, all situations involve people and where there are people in the mix, there are inevitably emotions and feelings. So even though we humans are distinctly not rational beings (think Captain Kirk vs Dr. Spock in Star Trek), the best strategy is to start with the data. And you’ll want to calculate the data in terms of both costs and benefits.

When it comes to the data, three pieces are especially valuable.

First, the money side. How much financial reward does it bring in versus how much financial investment is needed to make this project happen?

Second, the people side. How much time and effort is required? And does it save any time and effort if it goes ahead?

Third, the part that most of us miss: the opportunity cost. By taking on this project, what other projects won’t happen? What other opportunities will the group have to give up or postpone because they’re working on the project you’re evaluating?

When you have the costs and benefits laid out clearly, it’s easier to come to a rational conclusion – a Dr. Spock conclusion – rather than have the very normal emotional reactions win the day.

Which brings us to the second point.

Create a compelling storyline to frame the facts

In my experience, the most effective way is to start with why the project made sense in the first place. What goal was it designed to achieve?

Usually, it will have been a noble goal with a plan that made total sense when it was conceived. And you can honor it and even use your data to show the benefits it has delivered in the past.

But then you want to explain how things have changed. Whether it’s the success of the project so there’s no longer the same need, or how the environment has changed, this is the key to making it possible for people to let go of the project and allow it to be put to rest.

In other words, you’re giving people the permission to celebrate it and acknowledge that “its work here is done.” And that will help them move on. Just like tidying expert Marie Kondo’s method of saying “thank you” to an item before discarding it to make it easier to let it go.

Which leads to the next step.

Be prepared to suggest a new way forward

If you have a replacement idea, then by all means put it forward. For example, replacing an outdated client event with one they’ll like even better. Or restructuring the committee meeting to get more done in less time.

But don’t feel like you have to come with a fully baked idea. Often, the best thing is to allow others to help co-create the next step.

This puts less pressure on you to have to come up with a solution before stopping the madness of carrying on with the no-longer-useful project. It also makes it seem less like you’re just trying to promote your own idea.

And in any case, when people have a say in how things move forward, they’ll be more likely to embrace the new way of doing things.

So the new way forward could simply be to pause the project rather than “kill” it, and follow up with the rest of the team to look for better ways to achieve the top priority of the group.

But what if the project is your boss’s pet project?

This is where you still owe it to yourself, the rest of the team and your boss to have the conversation. Think of it as saving your boss from the embarrassment of sponsoring something that’s no longer useful and appearing “out of touch”.

Instead, you can help your boss envision something in its place that would enhance their reputation and that of the group.

By presenting it in a data-driven way, you take it out of the realm of being personal and into the business decision. It’s when someone feels their ego is being attacked that they get defensive.

And the other thing to keep in mind is to not be attached to the outcome. When you don’t have the decision-making authority, all you can do is make the case as compellingly as possible. Once you’ve done that, you can let go of the result.

Just don’t make the mistake of bringing your emotions into the frame

The key to success is to remain business-like. Remember, you’re focused on making the business case. And even if that involves trying to change something that upsets you just at the thought of it, you’ll have greater success if you can put it aside for the conversation.

Whether or not you get the answer you want, you’ll be presenting yourself in a professional way and that can improve your reputation and standing whatever the outcome.

Decluttering your life is easier when you can make the decision without anyone else’s permission. But since that’s usually not the case at work, remember to use these steps to help others see your point of view:

  1. Focus on the facts – use the data to help make the business case
  2. Craft the story – acknowledge why it made sense before and what’s changed since then
  3. Be prepared to suggest a new way forward – which could be to co-create a new path

And remember to adopt a business-like rather than emotional tone. Whatever the outcome, this will serve you well in your career.

Which of these steps would most help you persuade others to drop the things that are no longer necessary or helpful, yet still take up time and space in your day?

Leave a comment and let me know.