Recognizing Lost Causes: Listening To Your People

Endings are hard, and endings that come about not by choice are the most difficult pill to swallow. No one likes to put an end to what started out as a noble and promising venture, one that seemed destined for success at the outset. Giving up on a project feels like a failure, and given our druthers we’d pursue that proverbial white whale until it ultimately destroys us.  (Spoilers for a 150-year-old book, I suppose.) But there comes a time when we would do well to stop listening to our own instincts and seek out the advice of others on how to proceed in hopes of a more removed and considered opinion.  

The wisdom and counsel of advisors and board members is an important asset for any entrepreneur as they go through the ups and downs of running a business. These outside voices can help you to calibrate your own opinions and inform your decisions, even if you are ultimately making the important calls. For that reason, it’s important to find people who will be honest with you and give you the unvarnished truth, especially when it’s not what you want to hear. Collecting a group of advisors or assembling a board who are just going to agree and go along with whatever you say, defeats the purpose of either; you’d do just as well to do away with the pretense and just operate independently. What you need —what any founder needs— is dissenting voices and principled disagreement. 

Throwing in the towel on a particular project, or maybe even the business itself, is likely to be something that garners such disagreement between yourself and the team you’ve gathered to advise and consent. It might even be that instance when you feel like you should overrule the naysayers and continue on with the plan that you had and have continued faith in. But we can often be the worst judge of that which we’re closest to, and our unwillingness or inability to see things as they are and not as we imagine or hope them to be should disqualify us from making such important decisions on the future of a project. 

Rather than running from or shutting out other voices, it’s at times like these that we should have the wisdom and self-awareness to not only listen to outside opinions but to seek them out, to get a better perspective on the issue at hand. It’s only the weakest ideas and opinions that can’t survive scrutiny or dissent, so why would we be afraid of differing opinions of something that we feel strongly about? Perhaps our particular project doesn’t need to be scrapped entirely but merely reshaped and relaunched with the needed adjustments recommended by others. That’s certainly the best case scenario from our interactions with our advisors and board. 

Perhaps the likelier outcome is the more painful one: that a majority of the people whose opinions you value will tell you that your project has run its course and is only continuing on to no benefit other than the prevention of injury to your pride. As much as it might hurt, we owe it to ourselves and our business to listen to those voices and make the hard decisions. It will hurt in the short term, to be sure, but we have to trust in those we’ve put around us for exactly this purpose. This is, after all, what we’ve asked them to do: to give the hard advice, and to maintain such distance that they can offer it relatively dispassionately. 

Good leadership requires humility as much as wisdom, and the understanding that we can be wrong and we don’t always have the answers The idea of the singular visionary genius is alluring to our egos but damaging to the reality at hand. We do well when we recognize what we don’t know and the fallibility of our own opinions and surround ourselves with others who can help us with our burden of decision-making. But we need to let those same people arrive at their opinions in due course and accept whatever they might be, despite the temptation to try and rally people to our side. Most importantly, we need to be able to accept that advice as it comes, even if it is contrary to our own beliefs and desires. Sometimes the best thing an advisor can do is save us from ourselves.#onwards.

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I am the founder and CEO of Traklight, the only self-guided software platform that creates your custom intellectual property (IP) strategy and assesses business risk. I ...