Knowing when to pull the plug (or why you make the big bucks)

It’s a moment that most leaders have faced.  That enterprise-wide solution that you’ve been working on for 2 months and is three weeks away from implementation – the one that you championed for months, shouting down anyone who dared to disagree…and did you seriously just hear yourself say ‘I’d stake my reputation on it’ – is NOT the right solution.  Not even close.  In fact, it’s probably going to break the internet.  And the worst part?  You knew it 2 weeks into the project.

So what do you do?

Well, if you’re like most people, there’s a good chance that you just put your head down, rally the troops, and limp it over the finish line.  Heck, it might work.  Glass half full.  Power of positive thinking!  The Secret wouldn’t have been a top seller unless it really worked – right?  Besides, if you pull out now, it would be like a slap in the face to all those team members who worked their hearts out to meet the deadlines and somehow kludge the “solution” into the existing infrastructure, and that’s just unfair….

Okay.  Hold it right there.  If this has ever been your thinking, you just fell into the “sunk cost” trap (awesomely laid out by the Freakonomics folks in this 2011 post on the upside of quitting).  Maybe you could afford to base your decisions on sunk cost when you were a bright-eyed entry-level analyst, but as a leader you just can’t think that way.  It’s why you make the big bucks – you have to make the decisions that may feel icky in the short term, but are the CORRECT ones for the company.

Falling in love with your plan is a real risk for a leader and incredibly easy to do.  Chances are you were made a leader because you have great ideas and have a track record for bringing solutions to the table.  Hey, I get it.  Pulling the plug on an idea that you’ve incubated can feel like a failure – you seriously question the reason why you had the idea in the first place.  Or worse – you feel like you’re personally attacking one of your employees who was brave enough to suggest the idea in the first place.  But I would argue that your ability to pull the plug on a project or idea that isn’t right and/or won’t be successful long-term is one of the greatest skills a leader can have.  It saves time, money, good faith, reputation, sanity – you name it.


So how do you get your mind around the fact that as a leader it’s OKAY to pull the plug on a doomed project?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Runaway bride: Think of the project as a marriage.  Are you falling in love with the wedding without thinking about the fact that the two of you don’t really have anything in common?  If your answer is “maybe”, think about what the divorce might be like.  How hard is is to undo the project once it’s launched?  Chances are, pulling the plug now will be a lot less painful than trying to un-implement PeopleSoft  (not that there’s anything wrong with PeopleSoft – please don’t sue).
  • Outsider’s view: Take a step back and look at your project as an outsider would see it.  Or even better – look at it as though the project was being sponsored by your arch nemesis and start poking holes in it.  If you’re able to rattle off 5 reasons it won’t work within 10 seconds, guess what – it won’t work.  Now you can feel better about ending the project immediately.  Yay, you!
  • Trust the team: I have been lucky enough to manage some really amazing people in my career.  They were smart, creative, hard working…and nice enough to speak up when they thought I was doing something really, really stupid.  It took a little while for me to learn to listen to them, but I did.  And as a result, I felt okay abandoning my ideas when they weren’t the right ones.  Even better, the team built a culture where anyone could recommend pulling the plug and starting over so feelings weren’t hurt and precious time and resources were redirected to the right things.
  • Think of it as becoming more disciplined: It’s like eating vegetables – it’s good for you. Jim Collins wrote this article about the importance of a stop doing list.  If one of the most successful business authors can learn the importance of pulling the plug, surely you can do it, too.
  • Make it quick: Okay, so you admit it won’t work.  Cut it off NOW.  No prolonged battles, no questioning what the project’s real wishes were, no waiting around to see if maybe it’ll work next quarter.  Say your good-byes and pull the plug and let everyone move on to the next idea.
  • Get over it: So your idea didn’t work.  Boo hoo.  You’ll have another one.  Oh, is that a little harsh?  Sorry.  But seriously.  Get over it.

As a leader, your ability to think critically, logically, and systemically can make or break your company’s success.  That responsibility far outweighs any one project.

With great power comes great responsibility.
– Uncle Ben

Have some tips on how you pull the plug with dignity?  Share in the Comments.

A Tale of Two Leaders (why humility matters)

After sitting 8 hours in the cold to watch the Broncos lose to the Ravens in a game in which they inexplicably abandoned everything that got them there in the first place, I was in NO mood to watch, listen, or read anything about football in general and the Broncos in particular.  (Seriously, we practically had a media blackout in the house – we only caught the end of the Atlanta/Seahawks game because it was on in the store where we were shopping for a treadmill.  But I digress.)

Despite my desire to avoid any and all stories about the Broncos, I couldn’t help but click on this  article when I saw it on Yahoo!  It describes the post-game meeting between Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis.  (Another great article on the story can be found here.)  What struck me as I read about it was how difficult it had to be for Peyton to be there…to wait for what had to be forever to say goodbye to a respected competitor.  And the feeling of respect was mutual (the Peter King article quotes Lewis as saying he was missing a “great warrior”).  This was humility in action – leading by example, respectfully wishing luck to a longtime rival.  Peyton Manning is a leader.  Not in words, but in behavior.

Let’s contrast that with the debacle of the Lance Armstrong fall from grace.  Using his stature and his money and his power, he bullied and sued anyone who dared to speak the truth about him.  He was the face of an amazing foundation that gave a lot of people with cancer hope and support…and yet his actions said anything BUT leadership.  During is “apology”, he showed no contrition and a distinct unwillingness to hold himself accountable for his actions over the years.  Rather than show humility, he showed defiance.  As Dan Wetzel wrote in his article about the event, “After the first session the only question left unanswered is how he ever found so many friends to stab in the back in the first place.”

Humility is a powerful tool in the leadership toolbox – not as a manipulation element; rather, as a real and honest emotion that leaders can and should display in times challenge and in triumph.  A humble leader is a leader people want to follow.  A humble leader understands his limitations, and welcomes the contributions of others. When mistakes are made (and they will be made), a humble leader accepts them and learns from them – regardless of who made them.  Peyton Manning, through his actions away from the spotlight, shows a humility that people respect. (Except for maybe New England fans, but that’s their problem. But I digress…again.)

Despite the power of humility, too many leaders take the Lance Armstrong route – pretending they’re invincible, bullying others when they dare speak the truth, deny and cover up mistakes in an effort to remain “perfect”.  This can work…for awhile.  But what happens when the story unravels?  Suddenly, those who followed that leader simply walk away, cursing the lie they defended for so long.

Think about where you land on the humility continuum.  Are you willing to wait for an hour after a crushing loss to congratulate your competitor?  Or are you offering hollow apologies in an effort to protect your personal gain?  Where do you want to be?  The choice you make will impact your ability to lead.

I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. I don’t mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them.
― John Ruskin

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike…

My husband has been playing Zork recently on his iPad, happily marching his way through the world, drawing his map as he goes.  I hate Zork and all its friends – smug little text adventures that don’t allow for creativity and a free spirit.  Sometimes it totally makes sense to feed the bird to the snake!  And yes, I DO want to try to kill the dragon with my bare hands, thank you very much.

Okay, let me back up and provide some context.  When I was a kid, my father brought home the mighty Osborne 2 Executive computer (the OCC-2 for purists).  It was splendiferous –  5″ x 5″ monochrome CRT screen, integrated keyboard, side-by-side 5-inch floppies…oh, it was a masterpiece, my friends.   Add an orange magnifying screen and hook that baby up to a dot matrix, and we were set for hours.  One of the more popular programs that took up our time was Adventure, a text-base game in which the protagonist (you) wandered around picking up clues and objects with the goal of navigating a network of caves in order to…do something.  I honestly don’t remember.  I don’t remember because I never seemed to get further than distracting the snake with the bird to open the door with the key, thus entering the caves…where I immediately get stuck.  From that point on, the game became me wandering about aimlessly, trying to escape the computer telling me, “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike….”  No matter what direction I typed in, the computer just kept telling me, “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike….” I think that experience was the beginning of my sarcasm skills – I kept trying to figure out a way to get the computer to respond in a creative way.  It never did, but I sure had fun trying.

So why is she telling us this, you may ask?  Because many times, our leaders become the Adventure computer game.  THEY know the best path through the network of caves.  THEY know what those random clues and objects mean – of course you should have picked up that staff you happened upon 2 hours ago.  Duh.  Even worse, some leaders assume there is only one path through the maze.  No matter how creatively you think about the situation, or what flashes of insight you might have that could allow you to instantly solve the issue, your leader insists that every step must be taken in a specific order – no step-skipping, no creativity.  Rather than provide us with clarity and help, our leaders often play the role of the computer, sitting back while you fumble your way through the workplace, claiming “I’m offering you development” when all you hear is, “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike…”  And no matter what you say to your leader, he/she just keeps coming back with “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”

The resultant frustration experienced during such an “adventure” is enough to make even the most ardent among us want to reboot the game and start somewhere else.  Sometimes you might need to, but before you take that step, you can learn from the world of text adventure games to try and finish the journey:

  1. Know what you’re getting into: The first time I played Adventure, I had no idea what it was.  It was a computer game (what’s that?!) and it seemed cool.  So I gave it a try.  But I didn’t know that it was a slow moving, text-only “game” that relied heavily on the mythology of D&D.  If I had, I may not have been so eager to try…or I might have been more patient with the process.  Find out as much as you can about your leader (think of it as reading the back of the box for the summary).  That way you know a little more about what you can expect from this person.
  2. Take notes and learn from your mistakes: One of the rare benefits of a game like Adventure (and a leader who thinks that way) is that you can start to figure out the patterns of behavior that lead to bad results…and change them.  Took a wrong turn and ended up lost?  Write down what you did and then next time, do something else.  Failed to present your ideas to your boss in a way she likes and the proposal was shot down?  Write that down and next time, adapt your message to your audience. Eventually, you learn to anticipate moves because you’ve learned to recognize the pattern.
  3. Be specific in your communication: Nothing like FORTRAN programming to force you to be very specific and intentional in what you say.  Computers are so literal…and so are some leaders.  Take the time to really think about what you need from your boss – be specific, be clear, and be succinct.  You may be surprised by how well that leader responds to you.
  4. Use the invisi-clues: Okay, those are Zork-specific, but it still applies.  Invisi-clues were sections in the book that let you slowly reveal hints to help you past the tough spots in the game.  Your peers, and your leader’s peers, are your invisi-clues.  Don’t try to navigate every tough spot on your own.  Yes, it DOES help you learn, but sometimes you just need to figure out what the next steps are.
  5. Remember, it’s okay to shut down the game every once in awhile: Do you feel like you’ve been banging your head against the wall over and over, and you STILL don’t know what to do with that stupid scroll…er, document?  That’s what vacation is for – a chance to walk away for a little while.  If you can’t do a vacation, switch to something else for a little bit.  Give your brain a chance to think about something other than the twisty passages for a spell.  Your brain has an amazing capacity for finding the answers when you’re NOT consciously thinking about it.  Give it an opportunity to do so.

Whatever you do to get through your maze of twisty passages, just remember that it’s work – important, but just another part of your life.  Maybe you get frustrated, but find the elements that make you happy and keep trying to break the code.  No, I never seemed to make it out of that stupid maze, but I played that game for years, happily exploring the different paths that might lead me to…whatever the goal of Adventure was.  Each time, I got a little further before getting lost.  And I swear, once after hours of trying, the computer was proud of me…and said, “You are in a little maze of twisting passages…” – just to throw me a bone.


The mighty Osborne 2 Executive (OCC2). Oh yeah….