It can be hard to recognize when we’ve made an error in judgment, and harder still to admit those mistakes to even ourselves and particularly others. It’s pride certainly that prevents us from being fully honest that we’ve erred, and belief as well, particularly in big and important decisions. No one likes to be wrong, and so it’s easier to think that we just haven’t been borne out right yet, that the ideas we’ve implemented just need more time before people catch onto them, regardless of how much time you’ve already invested. And in some cases you could be right; certainly there are examples of entrepreneurs who stuck out initial doubt and tough times to eventually end up a winner. But there’s also a chance that patience is simply seeking to delay the inevitable, trying to put off having to cop to a mistake.
White flag attached to a flagpole waving on the sky
Most of us are aware of the “sunk cost fallacy”, the notion that we continue to pour time and resources into things that we’re already invested considerable amounts of both into because of that prior investment. It’s an idea that likely no one thinks they would fall into, and yet it exists despite that insistence, suggesting that perhaps we can’t recognize our own irrationality when it comes to understanding a lost cause. It IS hard to admit to being wrong or having made a mistake, and it’s difficult to give up despite the fact that by definition giving up should be the easiest thing in the world. Our natural impulse is to fight on until the end, but there’s something to be said for being smart enough to concede and live to fight another day.
Equally challenging to knowing when to quit is recognizing what to quit on, or where the point is to quit that falls between due patience and foolishness. Some ideas are clearly not winners from the start, despite your best efforts and intentions, while some might need that extra bit of time to gain traction. It wouldn’t serve to try to offset intransigence with impatience, and quitting too soon can do as much damage as not quitting if neither decision is well-considered. And clearly not every project or idea is the same, so each is going to require its own separate calculus on how much time and resources that you’re willing to put into it.
So what then is the key to making the right decision on when to continue and when to cut bait? Do we just need a crystal ball or some way to discern the future? While it would be nice to know what is going to work before we even start, ultimately we have to approach any such decision with both our objectivity and our insight. The odds are that whatever field we’re in is one that we’re well familiar with, and with that familiarity comes a certain understanding of all the factors and people at play. We intuit, or like to think we do, what potential customers and clients want and how they make decisions and we try to play to that. So it would stand to reason that if we’ve made our pitch to them and put what we have to offer in front of them and gotten little receptivity, then perhaps we’ve made a miscalculation. A simple deduction, but one that we’d probably rather not come to.
As difficult as it may be, we also have to try and keep a certain detachment from our ideas if we hope to judge them fairly and honestly. It’s easy and even natural to become enamored of our own creations, and that affection can blind us from harsh truths or hamper us from making difficult, necessary decisions. We’re always going to give more time and more money to something we’re emotionally invested if emotion comes into the decision, and for that reason emotion should play as little role as possible in your thought process. Hard facts and data don’t always tell the whole story, but they can help to cut through sentiment when necessary.
Deciding which projects are worth continued investment and which are best curtailed is a hard process, to be sure. Failure stings, and in a startup any waste of time or resources is especially painful. But there’s no mistake as painful as harmful, as the mistake that you double down on. Success can be about minimizing losses as much as it is maximizing gains #onwards.