Whatever project you’re in, the common denominator of projects is, that a good part of what you do is new and has not been done before, at least not under the same circumstances. So, every day you make decisions, go this way or that way. Have you experienced the nagging question, once engaged in a course of action, would the other way have been better? Is this leading into a dead end? Should I stop going that way and do something different?
The question that bothers me since quite a while is, how do you know, when to stop doing what you’re doing and go into a different direction? Too early would mean you change your approach all the time and will go nowhere. Perhaps the breakthrough is just behind this big obstacle? Too late means in worst you’re dead, broke or whatever and will never recover.
You start your own company, but sales are not coming in as planned. You lose money, one month, 2 months, 6 months, a year. Should you persist and continue as the great client contract who will jump-start your business is just around the next corner or give up and return to your day job?
You decide to build your new software product based on the code of someone else. The code seems not great, but the risk manageable. The further you go and add new features, the more unexplainable bugs you get, but the software is nearly finished, only 6 months to go. But no certainty that it will ever work. Should you go back to the drawing board and clean up the code which was really not so great after all and lose 3 months or continue and hope for the best? Or should you give up this software project altogether?
These examples have something in common. A decision to do A or B at the beginning of the project. You go down the road and things get tricky. Now the question that you ask yourself is: “Is this the obstacle that will break me or just another difficulty before success kicks in?” Should I give up or push forward?
Here’s what other people say
Being an entrepreneur and a project manager, I have been thinking about this problem for a while and I had some occasions to talk to people who have confronted the problem and got out of it.
Climbing a mountain is a project as such. At least if you speak of real mountains. Even a great and experienced mountaineer like Reinhold Messner sometimes comes to a point, where he had to ask himself a very serious question. Can I continue, does this make sense or should I throw away the money and time organizing and climbing and return to the base camp. When you visit the Messner Mountain Museum Firmian on castle Sigmundskron near Bozen, you see, that his decision was often to give up.
So how do such people decide?
“Well it’s gut feeling, that you build with experience. You have a responsibility for the rope team, that is on its way with you. If you push too hard, not only you, but everybody might die. The mountain does not allow errors. So, while climbing you check with your past experience, you look at yourself and at your team and you keep track of the level of power that you and the others have. You need to have at least 50% to have a safe way back. Then you look at the outer circumstances and you decide. Continue or go back. But you always play it safe. There is no use to push too hard, because when you decide to abandon, there will always be another occasion to try again. Whereas if you push yourself too far, this will be your last mountain.”
Prof. Dr. Günter Faltin
I have been discussing the subject with Professor Faltin from the Free University of Berlin (Freie Universität Berlin) and his decision making is based on hard facts.
“When you start a business especially if you are not alone you have to clearly define not only how you would like to work together, but also your boundaries and your exit criterions.
By boundaries, I mean how much time do you want to put into this business, not only weekly working hours, but also months until success or failure become obvious. The same is true for your financial boundaries, how much money are you willing to invest.
For example: I am willing to work 60 hours for 6 months and spend 10.000 Euros for this company. If I do not make 5000 Euros per month at that time I am out.”
I lately came across an article from Richard Branson talking about one-way door and two-way door decisions and I think this is something interesting to consider to soften the fear of deciding too late to stop.
And that’s what he is talking about. Many decisions are based on the idea that you have 2 options or doors and can only go through one of them. Once you went through, the door is closed. Leave your day job and launch a business or not launch it. Hire that marketing firm or the other. Etc. etc.
Now he says, that in many cases we can go through one door but protect the downside and so if things do not work out we can easily go back to the starting point and take the other door. That’s what he calls a 2-way door decision. The example he uses is when he launched his airline Virgin Atlantic. He bought a plane from Boeing to start his business, but in order to be able to go back through that “door” and to undo his decision he negotiated, that he could give the plane back to Boeing a year later just in case the business would not work out.
Your Take Away
I think we can learn from all the approaches. And each one applies to different situations and different people.
The mountaineer’s one puts everything into perspective, even if it is only feasible for experienced project managers or entrepreneurs, as you need the experience to develop a gut feeling. Or you need an experienced and trusted mentor who can provide you with this.
The interesting point comes at the end of the reasoning. Do not see the current project or endeavour as the ultimate all or nothing project. If you pull the breaks on time you can always take your learnings, and you should do this, and have another try. So, play it safe.
The approach of Professor Faltin is a more analytical one and requires quite some thinking ahead in order to set realistic boundaries for you and your project. But it allows a more objective view, especially if you are working together with other people in the project. Pulling the plug on a decision out of gut feeling is more difficult to explain than based on a predefined success factor. The difficulty is to find the right figures in order not to get out too early.
After you have planned out your project and get a feeling for schedule and budget you set objective figures. Discuss them with subject matter experts and your team and then follow your gut feeling.
As I do not believe in detailed planning from beginning to end of a project, at least if we are talking about perennial projects, because things change too quickly. So, you will arrive at forks on your road to success and that is when you must do the process all over again, but in a more structured way. Decisions within a project are more often than not decisions between 2 or maximum 3 possibilities. Therefore, I would go for a risk and opportunity analysis and would discuss the figures once again with experts and your team. Try to get them into the boat and do not leave people behind, as those will then only try to prove why this cannot work.
And then you have the genius view from Richard Branson and I highly recommend applying this, whenever possible. Make your analysis and then decide A or B and at the same time protect the downside so that you can go back through the 2-way door to the beginning at minor cost (to be put into the risk register) and start over again.
After all, one last word. We rarely find ourselves in situations where continuing or abandoning is a question of life or death. In business, you might maneuver yourself in a situation where there is no way forward in a specific project. But don’t forget, if you need to give up a project you can always take what you have learned and start something new. Having failed with 4 businesses and just missed filing for private bankruptcy, I know what I am speaking about.
Knowing that even if you fuck it all up and fall flat on your face you can always get back on your feet is comforting and will help you to decide much easier.
Now its your turn!
Did you find yourself already in a situation where it was a decision on a knife’s edge to go on or abandon?
What decision did you take, and how did it turn out? Please share your experience in the comments below.