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A Business Lesson From Reading Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away

This isn’t a typical book review because Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away by Annie Duke is something most of you should read without needing me to tell you about it. We all need a refresher on the positive results of quitting more often and lessons on the damage caused by trying to be gritty toward the wrong things, whether it be jobs, relationships, habits, etc. Read it if you can.

Simply put, we reward and admire people who “stick it out” when they probably would have been much better off spending that time and energy on something else.

However, there was one section in the book that I think is illustrative for our current times in the workplace and that section had to do with goals. Specifically what Annie refers to as Pass/Fail goals. She starts out the section talking about the London Marathon, citing a number of examples where runners suffered a serious injury part-way through the race, yet finished anyway. (i.e. a runner with a fractured fibula at mile 8, who ran another 18 miles on that broken leg.)

She uses these stories as a jumping-off point to talk about goals and failure. When the goal is to finish the marathon, anything other than that is a failure. Despite the change in circumstances, the risk of doing more damage to themselves, and the fact that no one would find fault in them for stopping, they went on with this myopic focus on hitting their goal.

It got me thinking about OKRs. You know, those quarterly, semi-annual, or annual goals we set for employees during performance reviews, and then measure them solely on whether they hit those goals or not. As if the world doesn’t change in the middle of the time period and forces us to react in a way that might not be part of our stated goals.

It also got me thinking about company-wide goals like market share, revenue, etc.

In both cases, we set these goals but when faced with the reality of the work that needs to be done, we rarely go back and adjust them. Let me give you an example from my own life. At the beginning of 2020, we set out my goals for the year, which included rolling out proof of concepts for a couple of different clients on a potential new platform. By March, it became clear those projects were not going to happen. Those clients cut staff and projects in response to the pandemic, and many, many clients suddenly found themselves using M365 and Teams and needing assistance with that technology. At the start of 2020 that wasn’t even on the radar for something I would be doing in my role. By mid-2020 that was all I’d be doing. At mid-year review time looking back at the goals we set was pointless, and everyone knew it. So they were never under any serious consideration. I was lucky that the change in circumstances was so obvious. It isn’t always that obvious and there are plenty of people being held accountable for failing to meet goals that should have been reevaluated, or never really made sense to start with.

We see the same thing when it comes to shareholders or private investors. The company set a goal of 20% growth, but economic challenges and other things outside of the control of the company occurred and the growth was “only” 17%. Or the projected profit of $250 million was “only” $235 million.

Failure. Cue the stock price drop, or the demands from investors to cut costs, mostly through layoffs. Note that this is a perfectly profitable company, not one losing money.

The thing is, a year where there was 17% growth and $235 million in profit might be considered a very good year, but because we view all goals as pass/fail, it was a failure that requires immediate attention. A year where your employee does great work in response to changing customer demands is a year worth rewarding, but if they happen to miss out on some of their goals that truly weren’t as important, we find ourselves with a reason to not reward them. They failed to meet their goals.

Worse, the message companies and employees take away is to ignore new possibilities and focus strictly on meeting the goals that were set out. Employees and companies respond to incentives. If I get a raise for finishing the race, and only finishing the race, I’ll finish the race despite the broken leg and ignore other things that are not finishing the race, even if those other opportunities would have been better overall.

Goals are nice. They can be used to help us track where we should be going and how we get there. The future, however, is not set in stone. Things change, and our goals should change along with the times. We should also not lose sight of the fact that sometimes goals are a guess. As Annie says in her book, the gap between doing no training at all and doing all the work to train for a marathon and running 8 miles before breaking your leg is a fantastic achievement, not a failure. By viewing it as one we set up a situation where the only sure-fire way to not fail was to never start.

As someone who has spent most of my life struggling with perfectionism, I can tell you many a story of things I never started because I might not have been the best at it. It’s not a great way to be, and it’s a horrible way to run a company. So set the goal, but fail at the goal if hitting it is going to be more harmful than not, and be willing to ditch it when a better opportunity comes along.

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