Learn This One Thing and Your Company Will Be A Success
Updated: Sep 6
There was a group of us in high school who continued to hang out as we all went off to discover our futures. The center of this group was a guy named Jim. He was kind, funny and a talented musician. He carried two drumsticks in his car so that when the spirit moved him at a stoplight, he could play drum solos on his steering wheel. He was the type of person who made everyone around them feel better.
So, of course, we all expected that when he found his soulmate, we would love her because she would be a reflection of him.
But like in so many rom coms, that is not at all what happened.
He picked Bonnie.
Bonnie was his physical type (petite, blonde), but not at all what we imagined would be his personality type. She was petty, jealous and difficult. We all tried to make it work, but it was a challenge. When Jim finally asked some of us what we thought, we gently and tactfully shared our concerns.
Jim clung to Bonnie more tightly. Then he doubled down and married her.
This is called escalation of commitment. It is the psychological process where increased commitment can blind people to common sense.
This not only happens in romance, it happens in business as well. In his podcast, Worklife, organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, explains how escalation of commitment impacts company decision making.
The more invested your ego becomes in a project, the harder it is to let go. Once it is “your baby”, you may create reasons to justify decisions because you are afraid of how a failure will impact your image at work.
This process occurs in teams as well. If you punish failure, then people go to great lengths to hide mistakes. This fear can squash the desire to innovate.
To combat this phenomenon you want to reward effective management and normalize failure.
Grant gives a great example of a project that explored the possibility of creating fuel out of seawater at X, the moonshot factory (the super cool Google offshoot, with a single letter name, developed to think big to solve some of the world’s hardest problems). After some initial research and experimentation, the development team determined that it would take years and a whole lot of money to continue the project. The lead developer wrote an email to her boss pulling the plug on her own project.
She and her team received a bonus!
They received a bonus for effectively managing the project. In fact, X regularly celebrates projects that are no longer with them, taking time to reflect on the benefits that came from scuttling these projects
How can you build a company environment where egos are in check and innovation is at a premium?
Adam Grant suggests implementing these 3 strategies:
Separate the decision from the original decision maker: Having other eyes on a project can help the company evaluate projects to determine their fit for the company. It helps disengage the originator’s ego from the project and cultivates a collaborative approach.
Process accountability: Set targets and benchmarks in advance. In the X example above, they set a target: the final product (fuel from seawater) could not be more than $5 per gallon. This estimate was based on market research. When they realized that just the seawater pumping cost would put them far above this target, they decided to let the project go.
Take the stigma out of failure: Creating a culture that focuses on what is best for the company and considers the greater good is essential to preventing escalation of commitment. Thinking about different ways to provide incentives, like X’s wake for dead projects, allows your team to focus their energies on lucrative and sustainable programs.
Oh, and the other lesson of this blog: Listen to your good friends. Jim got a divorce after a couple of years, and it allowed him to go on to live a bigger and better life.