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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published November 16, 2012

How to Know when to Pull the Plug 

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com. Watching a planned strategy take root and flower is exciting – who doesn’t like to celebrate success? Hitting planned sales targets, getting a new product out on time, hiring a key new employee and seeing them flourish – it’s these ‘success events’ which assure us that we’re making progress toward our medium- and long-term goals. The other side of the coin – dealing with strategies that aren’t delivering the results we anticipated – is somewhat more complex. Recognizing success is relatively easy, compared to diagnosing failure. At the heart of the issue is a simple question we’ve all found ourselves asking: What would happen if we simply gave this initiative more time? Or tweaked it a little? If we persevere, will it succeed eventually, or is it just a dud, consuming important resources that we could use elsewhere? In other words, how can we know when to pull the plug? Here are four steps to ensure that you won’t be caught in the “will-it or won’t-it” no-mans-land of assessing stalled initiatives: 1. Establish ‘pre-success’ indicators. When I watch executives debating whether or not a specific strategy is going to ultimately succeed, the one thing that is almost always missing is a clear understanding of what ‘pre-success’ looks like – indicators which would make it clear that although the strategy hasn’t flowered yet, it has taken root and is progressing as it should. When you plant a flower or a vegetable, even though you won’t see the final result until the seasons change, it’s easy to hop online or consult a book to see what should be poking through the soil in the first few days and weeks. It’s just the same with any important strategy – you need to agree before hand what the early indicators will be that it has successfully taken root. Leads generated, perhaps, for a sales strategy, or proof of concept for a new product strategy. (Bear in mind that you’ll need multiple indicators, spread over time.) 2. Set bail-out parameters ahead of time. Establishing what ‘pre-success’ looks like is only a preparatory first step in clarifying whether or not a strategy has taken root. The vital second step is to be very clear – in advance – the point at which you will pull the plug. If a month-one ‘pre-success’ indicator for a new sales strategy is to generate 20 new leads, for example, at what point do you pull the plug? If it only generates 19 leads? 17? 12? If, going in, you’re not very clear on what the precise bail-out points are, then when the pre-success indicators aren’t met, instead if having a clear-cut decision to make, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a sea of anecdote – and remember, anecdote is not data. 3. Make tactics modular, not binary. What if we generated say, 15 leads – fewer than our pre-success indicator of 20 – but rather than dumping the strategy, we instead changed tactics? Perhaps a different advertising channel, or a different pricing structure might rejuvenate the stalled sales strategy? Good question, and a perfectly valid one. With any new strategy, a change in tactical implementation can of course radically change the ultimate results. The key is – as before – to plan for the adoption of alternative tactics in advance, and within agreed parameters. So for our sales strategy, we might agree to adopt a second (or even a third, or fourth) tactical approach if our lead generation numbers come in say, no lower than 75% of plan, but to drop the strategy altogether if they are lower than that. The point at which it’s viable to switch tactics to keep a stalled strategy alive will vary from case to case, but the key is to be clear in advance the precise circumstance under which you’ll make that switch, and when you’ll pull the plug. 4. Ask a third party who has no vested interest in the outcome. Being tied to outcomes is the single biggest distorter of strategic clarity. When we have a vested interest in success, our judgment unavoidably becomes clouded. To know clearly when it’s time to pull the plug on a strategy, or when it’s worth persevering in the hope of achieving success, the biggest favor you can do for yourself – and everyone else involved – is to ask someone who has no vested interest in the outcome. You not only deserve that degree of objectivity, you need it.


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