Letting Go of a Failing Strategy

Ice and snow, bringing in some wood and getting ready for the holidays: these rituals signal another year is winding down. For business owners and senior managers, strategic planning for the year ahead also happens now. As I’ve outlined in my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, annual strategic planning should be handled with care, precision and commitment. From gathering input from all employees, completing a SWOT analysis and even getting away from the office to limit interruptions, strategic planning is serious business.

But what if, despite these collective best efforts, your company is pursuing a failing strategy? How can this happen if a rigorous SWOT analysis is conducted every year, as we do at Intertech? An eye-opening article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review, “Stop Doubling Down on Your Failing Strategy,” explains not only why it happens, but what leaders can do to prevent this surprisingly common problem.

First the whys. Authors Freek Vermeulen, an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School, and Niro Sivanathan, an associate professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, point out that “people have a tendency to stick to an existing course of action, no matter how irrational.” Academics who study this phenomenon even have a name for it: “escalation of commitment.”

Scratch the surface of any failed business case study and you’ll find commitment escalation was a major factor. Many mutually reinforcing biases apparently lead to this unfortunate syndrome, making it nearly impossible for leaders to abandon a failing strategy.

Some of these tie to great book Ego Is the Enemy.  They include:

  • Sunk cost fallacy—Leaders want to avoid losing costs already incurred.
  • Loss aversion—Decision makers often prefer to allocate more resources in the hope of turning around a failing strategy and avoiding loss.
  • Illusion of control—People habitually overestimate their ability to control the future.
  • Preference for completion—People have an inherent bias toward completing tasks.
  • Pluralistic ignorance–Dissenters often believe that they alone have reservations about a course of action and remain silent.
  • Personal identification—Withdrawing from a commitment may result in a perceived loss of status or threat to one’s identity. (Who wants to be the executive who had to kill his or her own failed strategy?).

How can companies possibly avoid these business-killing pitfalls? No surprise here. Building systems, or practices, into the strategy-setting process can steer leaders away from the pitfalls and closer to consistent and objective decision making based on facts versus (often hidden) emotions or psychological predispositions. These include:

  1. Setting decision rules—Agreeing on decision rules or objective formulas in advance.
  2. Paying attention to voting rules—Vote on a variety of criteria, versus a simple “yes” or “no” to prevent people from digging in their heels to “save face.”
  3. Protecting dissenters—This is easily done by providing anonymous feedback channels (we do this at Intertech with our all-employee Town Halls), deploying larger teams, calibrating diversity, and modeling doubt by executives.
  4. Expressly considering alternatives—Framing strategic questions to include the possibility of alternatives is an effective way to avoid an escalation of commitment to one course of action.
  5. Separating advocacy and decision-making—You can reduce the likelihood of escalation if you give responsibility for a strategic move to people who did not advocate or initiate that move.
  6. Reinforcing the anticipation of regret—We’ve all experienced “buyer’s remorse,” the regret you feel after you make a choice and realize all other choices now are off the table. Anticipating that this may happen, no matter what decisions you and your team make, helps soften the blow when it occurs. (Read the full article for more details and examples.)

Bottom Line: If you or others in your leadership circle have hung on too long to a business strategy that’s failing, remember it’s one of the challenges of being human. But like those fall leaves, sometimes there’s wisdom in knowing when to let go.


Getting On-Boarding Right

From pre-K to college, professional teachers understand the critical importance of a successful school year launch. “Onboarding Isn’t Enough,” from a recent Harvard Business Review states new employees need to be fully integrated into the culture of the company.  In the study of senior executives:

“Organizational culture and politics, not lack of competence or managerial skill, were the primary reasons for failure.” For new executives to succeed the research stated requires:

  1. Assuming operational leadership
  2. Taking charge of the team
  3. Aligning with stakeholder
  4. Engaging with the culture
  5. Defining strategic intent

In my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, I explain in chapter 30 how we set the tone quickly, upon acceptance of our offer, we:

  • Send a letter of congratulations
  • Courier a floral arrangement delivery to their home
  • Send an email explaining what to expect the first week

In short, take time and care to communicate with new employees.

Join Us

Why Work for Intertech?

We also exceed expectations by offering some exceptional benefits, such as:

  •  Three-month paid sabbatical for every seven years of service. If you don’t want to take the time, you can opt to receive cash instead…or tailor a combination of time off/cash that works best for you and your family.
  •  Flexible work culture that allows the majority of our employees to work from home one or more days each week. In fact, nearly half of our revenue last year was generated by employees working remotely.
  •  SIGNING BONUS: Intertech will purchase equipment for your home office-related expenses (up to $1,500).
  •  Exceptional teammates who have your back and learn from each other. That’s the result of selective hiring standards in which only one of every 20 hiring candidates are asked to join our team.
  •  Being part of a rare organization that is a two-time #1 Mid-Sized Employer in Minnesota award winner (Minnesota Business magazine, 2012 & 2014) and one of the Top 10 IT mid-sized consulting firms in North America (Consulting magazine, 9/13).

Know someone who maybe interested in joining our team, connect with them and fill out: https://www.intertech.com/Jobs/Candidate-Referral-Program  

Tweet: Know someone who maybe interested in joining our team, connect with them and fill out: https://www.intertech.com/Jobs/Candidate-Referral-Program