Was It Over When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?

joe —  Sat 12-Feb-11 — 10 Comments
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I love those stirring moments in a movie when all appears lost and the soon to be hero of the movie fights with everything they have to not give up. It’s those feel good moments that reach deep inside and tug at our emotions so powerfully that we continue to dole out $11 a person to watch it play out time and again.

But is “never say it’s over” always the best philosophy? How do you know?The problem is that we have all been conditioned to believe that the greatest accomplishments come from those that never quit. It feels good to believe that; but those are one in a million stories. There are far more stories of people that never gave up and never succeeded. Those stories don’t sell books. There are also countless stories of people knowing when to say when, cutting their losses and finding success by giving up.

The problem is how do you know when it’s over and time for a different tack?

In the heat of battle, you probably don’t know. That in fact is the time you are least capable of making a sound decision of when to retreat.

Margaret Mitchell

Any fool can be brave on a battlefield when it’s be brave or else be killed.
Margaret Mitchell

The key to knowing when you should cut your losses and start a new path is before you enter the battle; that’s the time when you are most lucid and capable of developing a rational plan. A rational plan always takes into account multiple exit strategies. I break mine down into three categories.

The first exit strategy is the easy one – success. If you can’t define what a successful outcome is you can’t possibly develop a plan. If you don’t know where you are going you are likely to get there.

Hill to Die OnThe second set of exit points are the “hills to die on.” There are some things in life so important to you that you will stop immediately if they are violated – no thought required. They usually arise out of moral conviction or protection of family boundaries. You might say that you would never work at a company that forced you to lie to a customer.

Hill = Lie to a customer. Exit Strategy = Quit job.

If you don’t know what your hills are stop reading this now and use this time to start defining them. They are that life critical.

“It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time.” – Clayton Christensen

The third and hardest set of exit points are those that require some sort of risk analysis on your part. Every war has points of retreat with the ultimate retreat being surrender. Most generals know what those are before they start. Before you begin, look at your march to success. What things could wrong? Make an exhaustive list. Once you have a list, ask others. You’ll be surprised how many things you missed.

You now need to define a mitigation strategy for each of these. It may mean adding resources, investing more money or soliciting buy-in from others. Ultimately though, there is a point where the cost of the mitigation is greater than you are willing to accept. Know that point – that is where retreat may be the best option. Stop, step back, and find a new path.

Out of all of these failure points comes the ultimate failure point – surrender. No one ever wants to think about that as it equates to failure. In many cases that is what it is, but it is as Demothesnes once said a chance to fight another day.

The key here is that every choice to continue on also has many points of retreat and surrender as options despite how you feel about it. Clearly the goal is to succeed, but if you don’t define the other exit options up front you may be forced to deal with them emotionally as they occur. In defining the exit points ahead of time you also have a chance to develop alternative retreat strategies that may ultimately prevent surrender.

Thinking about retreat and surrender does not mean you are weak – it means you are prepared to be stronger.

Today’s Question
Do you think about retreat and surrender options before you start a major challenge?

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  • Rtaylor

    My company is working to figure out product management for a large number of products. This looks like a great strategy approach for each product (as well as the life lesson uses :-)

  • http://www.andrewfuqua.com Andrew Fuqua

    Sometimes “not giving up” means coming to a better understanding of what your goal is or should be. It may mean redefining you goal so that it is better than before. Then, it’s easier to step away from the current line of attack and to take on a new trajectory. As you say: “Stop, step back, and find a new path.”

  • http://www.andrewfuqua.com/ Andrew Fuqua

    I think about retreat and surrender options before almost every bicycle ride. I also did so before undertaking my current role as an agile coach. But I can’t say I’ve ever been as thorough as you suggest here.

    Would you agree that we don’t often go into a battle knowing it’s a battle? Don’t we usually expect it to be a cake walk, then wake up one morning in a war zone?

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      I dont always follow my own advice. Sometimes my columns are simply ways of reminding me what I want to strive for. I always know my hills to die on, but the thoroughness of the next step is where it someimtes breaks down for me.

      So true about knowing a battle is going to be a battle ahead of time. A lot of times you don’t. Hard toplan for an ambush as well.

  • TomK

    One of THE all-time greatest Belushi scenes!

    I like to tell my boys that the difference between a crisis (e.g. a big test or pop quiz in their case) and an event is how prepared one is for it. Do your homework and that pop quiz isn’t so scary…don’t do it, and you’ll have the “awwww sh*t” look on your face. Same goes for life (imo).

    On cutting one’s losses, in the world of stock trading and speculation, the legendary trader, Jesse Livermore, said that to be a good trader, you must know your exit point before ever buying a single share of stock. If you don’t do that, he said that what you are doing is little more than gambling and the house will always win in the long run.

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      Excellent cross reference, Tom. I need to add that to my quote book. Thanks!

  • Lavmd

    Your third point is the hardest one to follow in business as in life. This is the classic sunken cost effect! You keep devoting resources whether it be money, time, and effort in hopes that there will be a change in the course of the plan of which you already have invested so much money, time, and effort…..

    If you think about retreat and surrender as points that you would consider in a negotiation then you approach major challenges more prepared to deal with a “successful” outcome. Remember success is measured in different ways by the individual. Do I want more money at the expense of another or is my integrity how I measure success. Just my two cents.

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      Very good points. Sunken costs are very emotional by nature and therefore very susceptible to irrational thought at the time they have accrued.

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