The world needs more U-Turns

Motorist with mapI hazard a guess that many people reading this article will own a GPS satellite navigation system (“GPS” or “Sat-Nav“) – I know I certainly do.  I’ve always been very bad at both navigating and driving at the same time, so when driving in an unfamiliar city, I find a GPS sat-nav absolutely indispensable.  Of course, it won’t always navigate to the precise location desired, but it gets very close.

 

I was recently driving around Birmingham, which is a city I visit only very occasionally, and even with automated directions, I managed to drive right past a turning.  My sat-nav (GPS) registered my mistake immediately, and made an announcement that all drivers dread….

 

  “Make a U Turn where possible”

 

With the help of this announcement I quickly realised my mistake, found a safe place to turn, and then I was quickly back on my way.

 

As I was doing this, it struck me how in business the word “U-Turn” seems to have a uniquely negative connotation.  If leaders of organisations or projects make a “U-Turn” this can be seen as embarrassing; it is painted out as a lack of conviction or lack of leadership.  This has an interesting side effect: It can lead to stakeholders stubbornly entrenching themselves into illogical or unsustainable positions, because to be seen to change their view could be a political and organisational nightmare—and this might be seriously career limiting! This pattern happens in organisations of all sizes; whether mid-size, small or multinational.

 

U-Turns aren’t inherently bad

Of course in business, we don’t have the luxury of an organisational sat-nav or GPS.  However, our companies should have a clear vision, mission, objective and strategies.  Our projects should have a clear set of desired outcomes.  These calibrate us for our journey and set our direction; it’s similar to typing the address into a sat-nav/GPS.

 

Yet, the business environment around us changes all the time.  New competitors enter the market.  Regulations change.  Customer appetite and demand fluctuates.  Strategic business analysis helps us to understand our business environment, assess our opportunities and threats and understand our strengths and weaknesses.  All of this information and data should be monitored and analysed regularly to ensure that the direction of travel is still sensible.  We can undertake regular organisational ‘sat-nav’ (GPS) checks, asking questions like

 

  • Are we still heading in the right direction (Are we on track to reach our original goal)?
  • Is this the right direction (Does the goal need to be revisited/changed – is it still aligned with the business environment)?
  • Are there any road-blocks (Are there any new threats or factors in the business environment that might affect our ability to reach the goal)?

 

Let’s take an example: Perhaps we’re aiming to be first to market on a particular product, and a competitor gets there first.  Rather than soldiering on with the project simply because there is so much ‘emotional capital’ invested, this is a time for reflection; is second to market useful and viable? Will it be profitable? If so, that’s great.  If not, a U-Turn would be more appropriate. Perhaps we can save the remaining development budget and invest in something different or unique that really will help us gain a competitive advantage.

 

Rather than fearing U-Turns, organisations, teams and leaders should embrace them and take them when necessary.   U-turns are unlikely to be a regular occurrence, but that doesn’t mean that they should be avoided completely. It is far better to make an early U-Turn and head in a successful direction, even if this means short-term pain, rather than stubbornly ignoring the business environment out of a foolhardy sense of pride.   Keeping a regular check on the business and project environment by conducting regular strategic business analysis is a crucial enabler for organisational success.

 

 

What are your experiences of business environment analysis and/or U-Turns?  I’d love to hear your views and insight, so please keep the conversation going add a comment below. And if you like my blog, don’t forget to subscribe!

 


This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions

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4 thoughts on “The world needs more U-Turns”

  1. A very good article Adrian. Question: ssn’t the sunken cost fallacy/dilemma a main point as to why U turns are that rare in business?

    1. Hi Bernhard,

      Thanks very much for the comment, and I’m really pleased you enjoyed the article. You raise a really good point, and I completely agree. The sunken cost bias (or dilemma) can make it hard to make a U-turn. So often there has been spend incurred, and that is seen as “lost money” if the project/initiative doesn’t continue. Of course, it could well be “lost money” if the project continues too…plus there may well be even more spent, when a better alternative would have been to pause/stop/”can” the project and take a different direction!

      Of course, some times a complete U-turn isn’t necessary — perhaps a minor correction would work. Yet the sunken cost fallacy can stop that happening too…

      In my experience, it can get even more complex when there is a kind of “emotional sunken cost”, i.e. where people have made an emotional investment. Perhaps they’ve had to go in front of the board and get funding… now they *need* to deliver the thing (else they will lose face). This, I suppose, has similarities, but with a different cause.

      It’s a very interesting topic, thanks for raising it Bernhard!

      Kind regards,

      Adrian.

      1. A very interesting perspective Adrian (and Bernhard). I have to admit that in my career I have experienced a huge number of u-turns at great cost to the businesses concerned. I fully agree with your thinking that some times such a move is justified in cases where the product can no longer be expected to deliver sufficient net value that would justify further expense however I would suggest a different approach to addressing it.

        The issue is usually that the business waits until the project is too far down the road and they find themselves limited to the options of going all the way or giving up and going home. A much better approach is to structure the delivery from the beginning with waypoints along the route where they receive distinct packages of functional and re-usable components. This way the business gets feedback on the deliverables much earlier and this gives them the options to pivot towards a different solution instead of backtracking entirely. This also ensures that they build up a catalogue of complete assets that can be used by future teams to avoid writing off the sunken costs entirely.

        1. Hi Mark,

          Thanks very much for your comment, and I agree entirely. I was being a little provocative with my article and I agree that, in reality, rather than complete U-turns smaller “tangents” or “pivots” are often more useful. The assembling of feedback along the way — whether that’s though actual functionality, or perhaps even prototypes along the way are key.

          The key questions (I think) that we need to ask include:

          –> Does this solution still meet the stated objectives (if not, pivot)
          –> Are the stated objectives still sensible and will they achieve customer/business value (if not, pivot and/or U-turn)
          –> Are we still sure *why* we’re doing this? (if not, pause & reflect)
          –> Has the business environment changed around us (if so, analyse the change and pivot and/or U-turn).

          So.. with this in mind, tangents/pivots work if we are broadly doing the right thing to start with. If the world changes around us, then it’s a U-turn.

          Interesting! Thanks for the comment Mark, it was very thought provoking.

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