When Should We Abandon a Campaign? Part One: The Problems
The challenges of practical strategy always come down to how our human minds work in making choices. In this article, we examine our biases when deciding whether or not to continue a campaign. There are pressures to continue campaigns when they are unlikely to return rewards, but there are also pressures to abandon campaigns when they are on the cusp of paying off. Given these biases, our gut feelings can mislead us.
We began discussing competitive campaigns last September in this article. To review, campaigns involve a series of moves related to a longer-term goal. We use campaigns to improve our positions in people’s minds by overcoming barriers. In doing so, they can reward us in new ways. There are many types of campaigns: military, romantic, political, job searches, educational, for promotion, for market awareness, and so on.
Changes in Campaign Value
One potential problem with campaigns is that, as time goes on, the value of finishing them can decline while the costs of continuing them can increase. A good example of this is earning a law degree. The cost of a law degree has quadrupled during my lifetime, but today only half of those who get a legal degree can find work as lawyers. Of course, this is all tied to the challenges of predicting rewards discussed in the last article.
One important change in campaigns over time is in their difficulty. Almost all campaigns tend to get more difficult over time. We discussed this problem in detail in the series of articles on the nine common competitive situations. Early, easier situations usually evolve into more difficult ones as campaigns continue. This fact tends to increase the cost of campaigns, but it also tends to indicate their value. Solving the most difficult problems frequently offers the most valuable rewards.
A good example of this is closing large deals. The more dollars involved, the more time most business agreements take. I have worked on sales cycles involving customers spending several millions of dollars on software. These campaigns can take a year or more, moving into more and more difficult situations. At the beginning of these campaigns, the newly discovered opportunity is always exciting, and hopes for success are high. It isn't until we pursue these deals that we uncover their challenges. The closer the sale gets to a decision, the more difficult those challenges become. This happens because sales prospects test their buying options in every possible way before investing large amounts.
The Horns of the Dilemma
Because campaigns take time, we often encounter new opportunities during them. It costs us something to ignore an opportunity, but it also costs us something to abandon campaigns that are nearer to paying off. One thing we can know about pursuing new opportunities in general: they usually take more time and effort to complete than ones that are nearer completion. No matter how simple they look before getting involved in them, they will generally become more difficult over time. Again, given the uncertainty of rewards, how do we choose?
This increase in difficulty affects campaigns over time. There is a tendency to abandon late-stage campaigns for early-stage ones. For example, when working in long sales cycles, sales teams uncover new sales opportunities. Since these new opportunities are in the early stages, progress tends to be easier. However, comparing this progress to the slower, more difficult advance in closing sales is a mistake. If sales teams habitually abandon difficult, late-stage closing situations for easier, early-stage ones, no big, valuable deal will ever get closed. Finishing the most valuable campaigns requires going through the fire.
The same is true of many other types of campaigns. Campaigns pursuing romantic relationships are susceptible to it. As a relationship drags on without commitment, a new, potential romantic partner can appear. Many people hop from relationship to relationship, in the end, finding themselves nowhere. To complete any long campaign, we must resist the shiny new opportunities that seem to come along.
Early in my career, I found business much more rewarding than staying in school, despite my “college prep” education. I then turned from a career path in corporate management, where I tended to irritate my bosses, to start a software company. At the time, my mother complained to my future wife that I never finished anything, which may have been a little disheartening because we were business partners.
There are also forces, however, discouraging us from abandoning losing campaigns. During long campaigns, we become emotionally committed to continuing them. Two different problems can arise.
When we have invested time and effort, we want that investment to pay off even if signs are telling us that it won’t. In economics, this is known as the problem of “sunk costs.” We should not decide on past investments, only future ones, but we want to lose our investment, so we keep investing more. This is known as “throwing good money after bad.”
During long campaigns, we can also lose sight of our goals of establishing new positions. We can get comfortable with our position in the campaign, fearing ending it. This fact explains college students who never graduate and those in romantic relationships with the same partner that drag on for years without going anywhere. Leaving an existing job can also be very difficult even when the job is a dead end.
So, there are many pressures for making the wrong strategic decisions regarding continuing campaigns. There are pressures to end them, but other pressures to continue them.
I have been involved in two successful, long campaigns. My wife and I built our software business into a multi-million dollar, Inc. 500 company over fifteen years, eventually selling it to GE Capital. It was very difficult for my wife and me when we sold out. It defined our lifestyle, but it was time. We then spent the next fifteen years writing books and training people in strategic positioning, an opportunity discovered and started while building our software company. Were there other opportunities that I did not pursue in staying with these last two campaigns for such a long time? Almost certainly. Do I regret my decisions? No.
The question is: what is a good basis for making strategic choices about campaigns that we can be happy with afterward? It is easy to say that we should see everything we start through to the end. It is also easy to say that we must always adapt to changes in our situation, especially taking advantage of new opportunities. It is easy to say that any campaign that will cost more than it is worth should be abandoned. It is also easy to say that anything really worth doing must surmount difficult challenges.
These things are all easy to say. The question is: what do we do? What issues do we focus on in order to make good decisions about whether or not to continue a given campaign? This is the topic of next week’s article.
Feel free to ask me any specific questions you would like me to answer in the article.