Successful Failures: When We Want to Succeed but Can’t

by Craig Forman

We all want to succeed. So, one of the trickiest decisions in business is knowing when to ‘pull the plug’ on a failing initiative. With so much at stake (employee careers, investor expectations, client needs – to name a few), it’s human nature in high-achievers to ‘keep going,’ even beyond the moment when the data and evidence points to the end.

So, how do you know when to simply call it quits? At Vox Media’s Recode Conference this week, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos provided his insight. “Most companies quit too soon,” he said. “I want to keep going until the last ‘high-judgment champion’ folds his cards.” Sometimes, he himself is the sole remaining ‘true believer’ he added. In my book, ‘Be Luckier in Life,’ Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz discussed his conviction that some people ‘simply give up too soon,’ a sentiment shared by Amazon’s Bezos. Watch the video starting at 59:25.

A case in point: Amazon’s unsuccessful foray into mobile phones — an initiative he has called a ‘successful failure’ because the initiative, while unsuccessful, has reaped big benefits in such other businesses as the Kindle and the Alexa/Echo home ‘intelligent agent’ service.

I asked another group of incredibly ‘successful failures’ from Silicon Valley’s renowned General Magic startup to share their insights.  YCombinator Partner Dalton Caldwell said he knows that when an entire team is ‘demoralized’ that the end has come. Apple veteran Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet in the movie ‘Steve Jobs’) said that she knows that it is time to quit when she is the sole team member ‘providing all’ the energy to motivate the rest of the team.success and failure Jeff Bezos

To me, as an entrepreneur and an investor, having the correct judgment about when to persevere, and when to ‘consciously uncouple’ from a business is one of the most important skills that any senior leader can possess.  To me, developing both subjective instincts and objective criteria for making such decisions is a key priority for breakthrough leadership.

Craig Forman is an entrepreneur and investor, and partner at NextNews Ventures in San Francisco. He speaks to audiences about managing change and creating more luck! You can also follow him on Twitter: @cforman

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