Facing the “Moment of Truth”

During World War II, the training slogan of the Ordnance Department of the Army was, “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.” While it was paraphrased from a variety of witty sources dating back to 1794, it does a good job of also summing up the attitude many marketers (ourselves included) exhibit toward the challenges we set for ourselves. But, on the other hand we have Oliver Goldsmith, who is quoted as saying, “He who fights and runs away may live to fight another day.” A much less frequently observed sentiment in marketing circles, but at times…who knows?

Take, for example, the high powered venture capital firm that recently announced it would divest its holdings in a company (and take an estimated multi-billion dollar loss) rather than continue to pursue the opportunity. In announcing that decision, the CEO said, “The investment required a disproportionately large amount of time and resources. The sale will enable us to dedicate more time to our other portfolio companies and new investment opportunities.” That sure sounds more like

getting to “fight another day” than pursuing the impossible for “a little longer”.

The question this all raises as we look at our own issues, projects, opportunities and resources, is: how do we decide when to continue to pursuing “the impossible,” or is it time to move on. Not an easy decision, from either a practical or emotional standpoint. On the practical side we have the dynamics of “already in so deep” vs. “good money after bad.” Very often, “walking away” will have a negative impact on shareholder sentiment and stock valuation in larger companies. And despite the prevalent left-brain pragmatism of modern marketing, emotional right-brain factors weigh in as well. The belief that if we give it “just one more try” or “there’s got to be a way.” Even if the challenge reveals impossibilities that were unforeseen at the outset, it’s tough to be associated with a venture or project that doesn’t deliver. It’s nerve-wracking to anticipate the criticism and the “second-guessing” that may ensue and even the potential negative career impact.

We are by no means promoting a “cut and run” mentality just because the challenges are difficult. Quite the opposite. We have always believed that conquering the tough ones is how brands distinguish themselves in the marketplace and how world class brands are built. Still, there are times when continuing to pursue those challenges is not the best course of action. So, what to do?

The answer is never simple and always situation-dependent. While there’s obviously no hard and fast rule for dealing with these decision situations, over the years we have uncovered some valuable principles for looking at the situation and making the best informed most reasoned decision possible.

Recognizing the moment Perhaps the hardest part of dealing with these situations has been recognizing that the time has come to make a tough decision. In the heat of day to day battle the need for evaluation is often not apparent. Or, as a rather colorful business associate used to say, “When you are up to your butt in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp.” But we’ve seen telltale signs: Taking multiple swings at the same challenge without being able to really advance the proposition – Repeated “near misses on goals or checkpoints – Hearing the same doubts or concerns from management in successive reviews. This doesn’t always mean it’s time to cut losses and move on. In fact, most of the time it just means greater effort and some fresh thinking is in order. But, they are certainly signs that a serious evaluation is in order.

Reinvesting the energy Instead of just looking at what is lost by walking away from the current activity, we’ve found it much more valuable for successful marketing to think about what would be gained by transferring those resources, both human and financial, to other activities…either within the current brand plan or to entirely different areas. This perspective also seems to provide some excitement and anticipation to offset the negatives of closing down the current activity.

Using the right balance sheet Very often, the first instinct is to do a “pros and cons” balance sheet for continuing the current course of action. We’ve found a variation of the approach provides a better basis for decision making. That variation is a “pros and pros” analysis to evaluate staying the course vs. either an alternate approach or investing the resources in a new opportunity. This approach has proven to remove any perceptual or emotional bias regarding the current plan as well as giving new opportunities a chance to show their potential.

Seeing through new eyes One technique for addressing the moment of truth is to bring in fresh eyes with a fresh perspective to help evaluate the situation and its potential for future success. The details of living with a brand or a project day to day often dilute the big picture. We move from one step to the next, knocking down challenges and obstacles and needs one after another with little time to step back and look at the big picture. So often when an “outsider” looks at the situation for the first time he or she gravitates to the major issues and factors, unencumbered by the details or emotional investment. Many times their evaluation or suggestion reveals a fatal flaw or opportunity to succeed that seems intuitive in retrospect. It’s just that big picture insight that could swing the decision to stick with it or shut it down.

Making a clean break The key word here is “decisiveness.” We’ve seen initiatives and even brands linger on long after it has become evident that the original vision is not attainable. The reasons vary, but the result is always the same. Valuable energy and focus being invested where it is certainly less productive, and which could be powering new opportunities. At times it has been the hardest decision to make and the toughest conversation to have with Clients, but in every case the results have been proven to be a net gain.

So for today’s Strategy Break here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if you are at a “moment of truth” decision point and how to evaluate it:
  • Do we really believe that addressing this issue, opportunity, etc. one more time can achieve our goals?
  • Do we have an opportunity or activity we’ve been under-supporting that could be a better use of these resources?
  • If we decide to take one more run at this, what can we do in a totally different way to increase the probability of success?

And if you are looking to make the decision on a current project or are looking to take another run at it from a new angle, we’d be happy to help with the evaluation or in generating new approaches. We’re no strangers to the moment of truth.

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