Sometimes you need to stop loss

it's OK to change your mind

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, they say, and true enough, it is easier to make judgements when all the facts are in. However, neither is it a waste of time to review past decisions and see how you could have done things differently. Best not to indulge in the self pity of “if only”, but equally it’s important to learn from mistakes made.

A favourite saying I was taught by a former female boss was “if you’ve never made a mistake, you’ve never made a decision.” True. Men probably struggle with that the most. You can plan, plan and over plan, but at some point you have to come down and make a decision. You can’t dither for ever, time marches on, rivals in the marketplace also have a vote and can change the game on you. You will get some calls wrong, and that’s perfectly understandable. It doesn’t mean you are stupid. It means you are human, but I bet there are things you can learn.

The art of decision-making is just that, an art. You can science it up as much as you like with data analysis to the nth degree, but in the end it is a guesstimate, an informed decision maybe, but you have to come down on one side or the other.

That’s all fine, but what happens to the leader/decision-maker when it is becoming plainly obvious to the team, and probably also to them, that the decision is wrong, and that a change in tack is required? Perhaps even a public admission is needed to suggest that I/we got it wrong, and we need to stop the bleeding? The new product is not going to work, the new territory is not working, the new campaign is not working, a new staff member is not working.

Research shows that 72% of managers will continue to forge ahead with their flawed direction, even if they now understand it is doomed. It takes a confident manager to admit they got it wrong. We admire the leader who carries on, despite the odds, and wins through in the end. They could have given up, but they persisted while howls of doubt raged.

But often if the facts are in, it is pure hubris and a thick veneer of insecurity that makes leaders carry on as if this Churchillian manner is enough on its own (“You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning.” to quote Thatcher as unemployment tripled). The loss making is compounded, the hole is dug deeper. The most difficult decision is the stop loss, and taking it early enough to correct the damage. ‘Carrying on’ means no admission of failure, and when it does all fall in a heap, it’s the lack of commitment from others, or failings elsewhere that are trotted out as excuses. Hitler screamed at his generals and blamed everyone as World War Two lurched further against him. I wonder what Blair really thought about Iraq as it was all turning out so bad? Did he make a fatal error in backing Bush and the distracting venture that took the focus off the real perpetrators of 9/11? He has yet to admit it.

Personally, I admire the person who has the courage to admit they got it wrong. I admire the flip flop, the pivot, the early decision to do so, with the public admission that “this is not working so we will go off in this other direction”. Politicians, managers, coaches and all leaders seem to be pilloried for the stop loss. Well, I salute you.

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