This Is Where The Cowboy Rides Away

By Mike Aucoin

One of the most difficult decisions an organization must make is the decision to close an unfinished project, especially one that is over budget and well past scheduled completion, with no end in sight. There is always the wish that if we just keep going, our fortune will take a turn for the better, and success is certain to follow. But it continues to remain elusive, and a dark cloud settles in over the team.

The decision to stop is a decision that sometimes must be carried out for the good of everyone involved. But how can one know when the right decision is the decision to stop?

It is a common theme in Western movies. Outlaws come to town and visit havoc on the good town folk. An upright cowboy, perhaps a man of the law, rides into town to re-establish order. In the climactic scene, the good town folk gather together to hear the hero deliver his gratuitous soliloquy on the virtues of truth and right. They implore him to stay, but he must go. There are other bad guys in other good towns and they must meet their comeuppance.

This is where the cowboy rides away.

What makes for a good movie doesn't always happen in the real world. Sometimes the outlaws have their way. Although out manned, our hero fights valiantly hoping that the cavalry will arrive at any moment. At some point, he faces the inevitable realization: perhaps the cavalry will never come. Does he fight to the bloody end, or does he cut his losses and ride on to the next town... where perhaps the fight can be won?

Sometimes a project defies control even though the project manager is a PMP, even though the organization has a project office, even though the company is ISO certified. Projects usually start and continue for good reasons. There is a significant opportunity and confidence in success. Things get off to a good start.

Then, unexpected storms are encountered. Perhaps the true scope of the effort was not appreciated; perhaps the client forces an unexpected change in course; perhaps some anticipated source of funding dries up; perhaps a stock market fall drags everyone under. At some point, progress is arrested, project work becomes tiresome, and nerves become raw. The workplace feels like quicksand and vultures are spotted circling overhead.

It is a very difficult decision to shut a project down. There has been a substantial investment of resources, time, energy and emotion. There is always the hope that the cavalry is just around the corner ready to bail out the battle-weary but valiant troops.

But there are times when the cowboy must ride away because the work in this town just can't be done - when it is more likely that the work in the next town will be successful. Sometimes a leader has to make the tough decision to cut losses and end the project, and the end is often messy. How can a leader know when it is time to stop the bloodshed and move on?

One could write several books on formal analysis and decision-making processes, but for me it really comes down to a gem of wisdom I heard years ago in an interview with a car dealer on TV. He talked about the process through which people make a decision to purchase a car. I have come to learn that what he said is not only true for a major purchase, but this process applies to any major decision.

All major decisions are ultimately emotional decisions - they are made based upon the emotions experienced about the options available. The car dealer believed that these emotions were already in place very early in the decision process and that people spend the rest of their time in the process gathering factual information to support the emotional decision. In the end, it appears that a reasoned decision was developed, but in reality, the decision was made intuitively, if not consciously, long before.

So it is with buying a car. We fall in love with the car, and then gather information to justify the purchase. So it is with ending a project. We may subconsciously know it's the right thing to do, but sometimes it's a long way from the heart to the mind, especially if the decision to terminate the project will draw a lot of political heat.

Just because a decision is emotional makes it no less real or valid, nor should we try to avoid or suppress the emotions - they are what they are, and our emotions are often more perceptive than our thoughts. The information gathering process is still warranted because we may learn facts that can influence the emotions. But what if we are unaware of our emotions or conflicted about them?

What can help the most is to have a technique to help us surface the emotions we are feeling but of which we are not consciously aware, a mechanism to help us find the dominant emotion when there are conflicting feelings.

Here is one that a friend offered years ago: flip a coin!

The purpose of this little trick is not to use the coin flip to dictate your decision, but rather to identify the feelings that result from the coin flip to help you determine your direction.

Here's how it works. Suppose you are trying to decide whether or not to terminate your troubled project. You decide to flip the coin: heads you continue the project, tails you terminate. You flip the coin and it comes up heads. Are you feeling suddenly energized over a new lease on the life of your project? Or, do you feel demoralized about the postponement of closure?

Suppose your coin flip comes up tails. Now, do you feel relieved? Has the coin confirmed your desire to move on? Or, do you feel cheated of the opportunity to finish the job?

You may observe more than one feeling to result from your coin flip, but try to sort out the dominant theme, and try to recognize your immediate feelings - don't give your brain time to decide the politically correct path. The whole point of this exercise is to help you surface what's really in your heart.

I have used this exercise on several occasions on life decisions about which I was severely conflicted. Let me share one of them, but to do so, I need to go back a number of years.

My grandparents owned a farm, and although I grew up in a suburb, from the time I was a kid, I really enjoyed visiting their farm. When my grandfather became unable to work the farm anymore, my dad didn't want it, so the farm was put up for sale. I was in graduate school at the time and thought seriously about leaving school to run the farm - I didn't want to lose it. My mom, being wise, counseled me against this decision, saying that my strengths were more appropriate to be used elsewhere, namely as a professional. But she said that someday, my dream of life in the country would come true. With sadness, I agreed with her, and watched my grandfather's farm become a subdivision.

Ten years later, I drove past a house on several acres that I fell in love with, but soon forgot because I was not in a place to buy, and it wasn't for sale anyway.

Move forward another ten years, and now my wife and three children and I were in need of a larger home. Our search took us on a drive past the home that I had forgotten, and it was for sale! Although it was a financial stretch, we signed the contract to purchase the house. With tears in my eyes, I remembered my mom's prophecy from twenty years earlier and was so grateful that it had come true.

A week later, we had an inspection of the house with a certified inspector. When he finished, his first words were, "The people have been hard on this house." He went on to show us a number of areas with significant damage. It became apparent that we were facing major work and expense to make the house viable. Was our dream house really a nightmare?

Our contract allowed us to terminate the deal, but we were within 24 hours of the termination deadline. My wife and I anguished over the decision. Finally, with only an hour left before the termination deadline, I pulled a coin from my pocket: heads we buy, tails we terminate.

My hand trembled with the first coin flip... tails. I really didn't know what I felt. I flipped again... still tails. I felt a quizzical sense of relief. Another flip... tails again. The relief felt more perceptible. Eight straight flips and eight straight tails. No, it wasn't a cosmic sign, but after the eighth time I knew I had my answer. While I felt very sad and wondered if it was the right decision, I also knew that I felt definitively relieved to terminate the contract. And so we did terminate, once again with tears in our eyes.

From time to time, I drive by that house and feel sad over what could have been. But I also know that it was absolutely the right decision because the house of my dreams was in reality a house that others had abused. And when I drive by that house, I still think of my mom's prophecy and long for the day when it will finally come true.

Terminating a troubled project is never easy. But life implores us to sometimes make hard choices. Best that we follow our hearts when faced with those decisions.

Because there are other towns where there is work to be done...

This is where the cowboy rides away.

Happy trails!

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