You’ve recently launched your brainchild — maybe a new business, a new career path, or a new role inside your existing company.
But things aren’t off to a roaring start. Is it just the low end of the S-curve of growth, the flat line before things start to improve? Or is it just…well…a flat line?
No one wants to declare their dream dead unless it is, in fact, dead. But if yours is on life support and you’re channeling valuable resources into a flat-lining cause, you may need to recognize the inevitable. How can you know when it’s too soon to give up? I have evaluated thousands of new ventures and helped hundreds of career-dreamers, and I’d suggest that affirmative answers to the following questions suggest that you’re on the low end of the curve — but that growth is coming.
Does your business (or position in your company) occupy an otherwise unoccupied niche? Do you meet a need that isn’t being met or a need that isn’t recognized yet? Your novel contribution may be brilliant, even if initial interest is listless. You’re in good company: many game-changers have garnered little attention in their nascent stages. The Wright brothers tested their flying machines without an audience for years, encountering skepticism and apathy. The first powered flights weren’t covered by the press, and few outside the immediate neighborhood even believed they’d occurred. The Wrights were visionaries; they persevered until their genius flew up the S-curve and off the charts. A slow start isn’t the whole story.
Are you playing to your strengths? We want to do what we love, but sometimes our passion doesn’t intersect with our strengths. It’s important to identify your true gifts. Honestly assess these abilities relative to the resources your enterprise requires. Are they comparable? Or are you pursuing a passion for which you’re poorly adapted? If you really don’t know, seek out a few honest friends or mentors and ask them to be straight with you.
Based on your answers to the previous questions, have you assumed the right risks? If the competition is fierce, then you’ve embraced a higher probability of failing. If you’ve carved a niche that you occupy from a position of strength, then it’s time to settle in and persevere.
Do you find your work difficult but not debilitating? Do you face the new day with enthusiasm even though it’s daunting? Robust growth may yet be on the way. But the work of Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch, associate professors of psychology, demonstrates that continuing to pursue the wrong goals can increase levels of the inflammatory molecule C-reactive protein, which is linked to health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and early aging in adults. Dreading your work, or suffering adverse physical conditions, is symptomatic of a flat-lining curve.
Are you gaining momentum? Momentum can be quantified. There are many metrics that can be measured: numbers of customers or closed transactions, level of exposure, pipeline prospects, etc. If your metrics show improvement or increasing growth, it’s time to double down. In 2004, Bravo launchedProject Runway, the competitive reality TV show for aspiring designers. The Nielsen ratings showed fewer than 2 in 1,000 people watched the premiere, one-tenth of the Bravo projection. Weeks 2–4 were no better. But instead of giving up on it and reverting to sure-bet programming, Bravo showed the first three episodes again and again. A month later, the ratings had quadrupled. They still weren’t at the initial projection of 20 in 1,000 viewers, but as momentum accelerated, the low end of the S-curve was soon a thing of the past.
Knowing When to Pull the Plug
Any disruptive change results in at least a short-term loss of efficiency. And there are plenty of times when the only thing standing between us and the outcome we desire is patience and perseverance. But other times there’s just no viable prescription for success. Even when we follow the right regimen, nearly two-thirds of new enterprises are doomed. According to data from CEB, 50–70% of new executives fail.
Negative responses to the questions above suggest that it might be time to pull the plug. To the culturally popular “winners never quit” mentality, marketing guru Seth Godin retorts, “Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.”
Believing that additional doses of time and/or money will save the day is tempting — we are all sensitive to the sunk-cost fallacy. But knowing when to pull the plug can be the difference between sinking a rowboat and sinking the Titanic.
Even if your curve has flatlined, experience is a great instructor. Problems are solved by eliminating variables. Failed adventures help us chart a smarter path the next time. The Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand has studied competitive surfers and determined they typically spend 8% of their time riding waves, 54% paddling, and 28% waiting. No one would suggest that the paddling, waiting, and inevitable wipeouts aren’t integral to their ultimate success. The next wave to roll in may well be the S-curve you’ve been waiting for.
Originally published at Harvard Business Review