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    February 1, 2023

    Leadership Superpower: Knowing When to Ditch the Losers and Move On

    Losers. Most of us know a few at work. Maybe, if you’re honest, you’re surrounded by them right now. You know what I’m talking about—those money- and time-sucking initiatives/products/projects that provide little, if any, value. It’s sometimes hard to hear, but it’s time to ditch them.

    The Problem: Teams Either Lack Data, or Fail to Listen to What it Says

    It seems simple: If something isn’t delivering value, ditch it. Why then do teams in some organizations talk about ditching these losers, but fail to walk the walk? I’ve even worked with organizations that have teams who know their initiatives are failing, yet continue to invest in them anyway. I’ve found these two themes recur over and over:

    1. Success metrics have not been identified, so nothing is getting measured.
    2. Paradoxically, in some organizations that are measuring success, leaders ignore their own data if it contradicts their original hypothesis.

    In my recent blog post about OKRs, I have addressed the first scenario and introduced OKRs as a goal setting, measurement, and alignment framework. In this post, I’ll explore the second theme.

    A Case Study: Failing to Listen to Data

    A few years ago, I was consulting with a retail organization, helping them navigate a much-needed digital transformation. Although they were a digital-native company, their technology was outdated. They built version 1 in 2008. More than 10 years later, they were only on version 2.

    I arrived in 2019, and they were already pretty beat up. A competitor, who they failed to see as a threat early enough, had snatched up a few of their key accounts. A year later, when Covid hit, their supply chain evaporated, and they lost two of their six largest remaining accounts. Consequently, they were in an unhealthy financial state. Culturally, people were beginning to feel defeated, and the pandemic was taking a toll on morale.

    But it wasn’t all bad news. The organization brought in a few new members to their leadership team. These executives had big new ideas, and they pumped some energy back into the room.

    The new leadership team spent weeks brainstorming how they might win back some market share and maybe even expand. They hypothesized that by building a brand new platform, they could address their supply chain issues, and save millions by year two. While I doubted their predictions about saving millions, they built a very convincing business case in many other ways. They even built OKRs that would measure the value and success of the platform. It looked really good on paper and the team was confident and energized by the initiative.

    Fast forward one year. No key results had been met, even when you make allowances for the aspirational nature of some of their OKRs. At that point, they were miles away from where they hypothesized they’d be. But it wasn’t from a lack of trying. In fact, it was one of the hardest working and committed teams I’ve ever engaged with.

    On the flip side, and based on their own OKR data, this platform was a loser. They’d spent an entire year by that point working on it and trying to sell it. While it garnered some interest, unfortunately the data was clear—their experiment had failed.

    From my perspective, the data was so compelling that I was in disbelief when they decided not to change course. From their perspective, they just hadn’t gotten to the early adopters yet. They might have been right about that, but they were out of time.

    I consulted with them about their data many times during my tenure there. About nine months in, I remember pleading with them to ditch that loser and move on. Unfortunately, the emotional ties to this platform ran too deep for these executives. There was no reasoning with them.

    They continued their investment until they ran out of money about 18 months later.

    Painful Lessons

    The team, and in particular the C-suite executives, were so personally invested in the platform that they couldn’t accept what was written in black and white: the experiment had failed. They should have learned from this failure, but they didn’t. Who knows what might have happened if they had listened to the story that the data told? Maybe they would have ditched the loser platform altogether. Maybe they could have changed course and invested in a new initiative that could have altered the company’s fortunes.

    Conclusion

    It can be really challenging to come to terms with initiatives that we care about, but that are floundering or even failing outright. Many digital advisors, like myself, say the same thing: experiment. Plan, do, check, and act. Deliver something that can be tested and then measure it. Sometimes the hardest part of all is then asking ourselves: What does our data tell us? Was our hypothesis correct? If not, what needs to be changed? Do we pivot or do we need to ditch the initiative altogether?

    If you’re doing this assessment, be honest with yourself: Did you commit to an outcome or not? If you did, then you need to accept the story that the data tells. If you’ve got a loser, do yourself the biggest favor in the world by ditching it and moving on.

    Marie Kalliney

    Marie, who is "All Agile All the Time" (AAATT), serves as the Practice Director for ValueOps Professional Services and is a frequent content creator on the power of leadership. Marie's team of digital advisory consultants guides our clients through their Value Stream Management journey, driving business outcomes and...

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