How to Shut Down Organizations

Cassie Robinson, Head of Digital Grant Making at the UK’s Big Lottery Fund, on the need to decommission in an intelligent and responsible way

Why It Matters

All innovations have a shelf life, but all too often we get attached to sustaining innovations that were successful in the past. Closing innovations, programs, or services in a thoughtful and compassionate way can boost organizational resilience, relevance, and empower teams.

Why is it important to be thoughtful about how we close things down?

Before we ask why it’s important, I think we first need to recognize that there is a need to do it. It feels like one of the missing pieces when we’re thinking systemically about change. Things like needing to end things, or to move out of the way for new things to appear, seems like the elephant in the room that no one wants to address.

What is the value in ending things?

It gives space to something new that may be more relevant or necessary and gives the opportunity to draw on wisdom, learning, and layers of experience that are wrapped up and are hard to share and know until there has been time to reflect.

Cassie Robinson, Head of Digital Grant Making, Big Lottery Fund UK

Why has this been such a missing element in systemic change?

As a society, we don’t face up to death. We like to avoid the idea that things are going to end. There is a lot of denial and avoidance and a lot of pain that needs to be faced. Humans aren’t generally good at sitting with hurt and other messy, difficult emotions that come up with something ending. On a practical level, there hasn’t been a lot of tactical strategy on how to end well.

Things may not be working anymore, but there is no roadmap on how to end things well.

What does a thoughtful closing down look like?

It’s not like things haven’t been closed down many times, but I have not heard of it being resourced as something worthy of investment. If you want to end something well, challengingly and compassionately, you need to resource it. There needs to be care and care means time, space, relationships, and listening. There’s a whole pace to which something would be closed down, which is resource heavy.

Is it a matter of getting to the point of awareness?

Yes. You have to ask: What is the legacy? What is the value it has created? How can you tell the story about that in a considered way? There is a big investment into the narrative piece of closing things down. How can they walk out the door proudly and have their decision seen as wise and courageous, rather than feeling disempowered or like they didn’t have a choice in the matter. Can things be viewed as having a natural cycle? Like they are coming to a natural end? I have a bit of a fantasy that there are a bunch of people in the social sector scrambling to fundraise and they kind of know deep down that it’s not working out anymore and this may be an out for them. This would open up the space to those people who have that gut feeling, but don’t know how to face it.

What does the roadmap for this project  look like for this year?

I am focused on the social sector. One thing I want to look more into is how the social sector as a whole needs to respond to how technology is changing society. There is another piece about drawing on the ritual, ceremony, and ancient wisdom around death, dying, grieving, and loss. I would love some of those things to inform the design of the Farewell Fund. There is also the psychology side of it all. What do we know about loss, grief, and how people let go of things? Then the practical side of it: the design of application forms, the kind of money people would need. It’s about giving form to some of those ideas.