“As long as my failing project keeps going, I won’t be a failure”
January 12, 2023 | by Chris Kalaboukis
Is it better to have grit, or know when to quit?
A few weeks ago I was listen to an excellent episode of the Innovation Show podcast, with guest Annie Duke.
It was about her new book “Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away“, and there was one topic they spoke about which really stuck with me when thinking about innovation projects.
She spoke about why people often find it so hard to walk away from or stop projects which are obviously failing.
This happens a lot in the world of innovation projects, where insights show that the initial idea for a project just is not working and the project should be killed. However, the project team, and especially the project owner (often the person who originally had the idea), just cannot let the project stop.
The reason is that as long as the project is still going, it has not officially failed yet.
And as long as the failing project keeps going, the person leading it therefore won’t be a failure.
Think of it like the well-known problem in gambling called “loss chasing“, where a gambler begins to lose money and thinks the only way to get it back is to continue gambling larger amounts, with the hope that any one win could bring back what they have previously invested. Essentially, even when they have “failed” by losing a lot of money in one evening, they would not be deemed a “failure” until they stop gambling and leave the slot machine / roulette table / poker game, since then their ability to recoup their investment really has stopped.
This can be especially problematic as the longer an innovation project goes, the more painful it can be to be forced to stop. As time passes and project costs accumulate, management can see those previous sunk costs and fear losing what they have previously invested if the project stops. Counterintuitively, that previous investment is already gone, and spending additional money on a bad project often just results in additional money, time and energy being wasted, when it would have been far more effective to recognise it was time to stop earlier.
People feel failure tremendously as it brings a risk of shame and being rejected from their group.
In a job setting, failure is often especially feared as it will be noted in performance reviews and have an implication about how able someone is to do their job.
So often, the most comfortable thing an innovation team does during a failing project, even when they know the best thing to do would be to quit, is to say they should keep going, and eventually all the extra effort might fix everything.
This hardly ever happens, and is almost always a bad idea.
So what can we do to reduce the risk of this happening?
- Reduce the fear of being branded a “Failure”: many people fear failure in a business context, thinking that any plan that didn’t work means they did a bad job and will be punished. Instead, we should learn to treat failure like a scientist. Scientists try experiments, and if those experiments fail, it is actually very valuable and positive data about what did not work, enabling them to try something different the next time. So instead of planning a project to either succeed or fail at launch, turn it into a series of many smaller experiments which can tell if you and the project team are going in the right direction.
- Validate often whether a project is on the right track or “failing”: From a project management perspective, we can also use management methods like the L.I.V.E. innovation system to validate if a project is making progress or not, and whether it makes sense to continue the project or reinvest the resources with a higher chance of success. By taking away the stigma from killing projects, progress reviews can be made a lot less personal, and people will be less intimidated about sharing news that a project is off track
In conclusion, failure in itself is not bad, if it is done in small, cheap steps and helps the teams get to where they should be going faster.
Even if that destination is the project being stopped.
Often, quitting is the smart choice.