When the Going Gets Tough, Turn Around!

Elton John is right, sorry is the hardest word. It is hard to admit that one has been wrong. Harder still is to find a way forward, a way to correct one’s past mistakes. It often involves backtracking.

But when it comes to hard-headed business decisions, backtracking may often be the only thing to do. It makes sense to cut further losses when there is little point in throwing good money after bad. Such containment efforts are routine events in most establishments.

The biggest loss containment effort that I had a personal stake in happened in the US in the early nineties. I began noticing its worrying escalation in a hotel room in Washington DC. I was student delegate in the annual conference of the American Physical Society (APS). Despite the happy APS atmosphere (where many graduate students find their future placements) and the beautiful pre-cherry-blossom weather, I was a worried man because I had just seen a TV commercial that said, “Ten billion dollars for a particle accelerator??!! What the heck is it any way?”

The ten billion dollar project under attack was the so-called Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas, which was eventually shut down in 1993. The cancellation came in spite of a massive initial investment of about two billion dollars.

To me, this cancellation meant that more than two thousand bright and experienced physicists would be looking for jobs right around the time I entered the job market. This concern represented my personal stake in the project; but the human impact of this mammoth backtracking was much deeper. It precipitated a minor recession in the parts of Dallas to the south of the Trinity River.

Similar backtracking, though at a much smaller scale, may happen in your organization as well. Let’s say you decided to invest two million dollars in a software system to solve a particular business problem. Half a million dollars into the project, you realize that it was a wrong solution. What do you do?

It may look obvious that you should save the company a million and a half by stopping the project. This decision is exactly what the collective wisdom of the US Congress arrived at in 1993 regarding the SSC. But it is not that simple. Nothing in real life is that simple.

Corporate backtracking is a complex process. It has multiple, often interconnected, aspects that have to be managed with skill.

If you decide to backtrack, what does it say about your business acumen? Will it trigger a backlash from the top management accusing you of poor judgment? In other words, will your name be so much in the mud that you would find it impossible to secure a job and support your family?

Let’s say it really wasn’t your fault and you had valid arguments to convince everybody of your innocence. Would that make it simple enough to pull the plug on the project? In all probability, it would not, because all big projects involve other people, for no man is an island. Stopping a project half-way through would probably mean sacking the whole project team.

This human cost is something we have to be aware of. It is not always about dollars and cents. If you are kind soul, you would have to move the team to some other (potentially unproductive) project, thereby eroding the savings that would’ve accrued from stopping the project. Wouldn’t it have been better to have continued with the original project, doomed though it was?

In most corporate cases, it will turn out to be wise to shutdown doomed projects. But don’t underestimate the costs involved. They are not always counted in monitory terms, but have human dimensions as well.

It is far wiser never to embark on dubious projects. When you must get involved in uncertain projects, review your exit options carefully. For instance, would it be possible to reshape the project in a different but still salvageable direction?

And if and when you do have to shut them down, do it with decisiveness. Do it with skill. But most importantly, do it with decency and compassion.