How to know when it's time for a change

Achieving perspective
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COMMENTARY. Probably the toughest dilemma you'll face over and over throughout your career is how to know when it's time to throw in the towel and change course. That goes for individual contributors, managers, business leaders, executives, CEOs, everyone.

Any entrepreneur, business owner, or venture capitalist will tell you that one of the key factors in business success, especially for startups and relatively new lines of business, is staying focused and sticking to the plan. Unfortunately, one of the biggest failure modes for those same businesses is sticking with the plan for too long and failing to adapt to changing market conditions. 

It's a real dilemma, that's for sure. I can't tell you how many times I would have killed to have the answer appear on a wall or a fortune cookie or something.

My wife's been threatening me with divorce since the day we got married; can't seem to figure out if I'm worth all the trouble or not. Honestly, I don't blame her, but don't you think 22 years is a long time to think it over? I'm just saying.

Not that I've got all the answers. I'm still trying to figure it out myself, and I've been at this a long, long time. It'll probably come to me on my deathbed -- the universe's payback for being such a sarcastic and selfish PITA.

Nevertheless, I'm relatively certain I can come up with at least seven situations where you can be absolutely, positively sure that what you're doing isn't working and it's not likely to change in your lifetime.

One caveat, though. I can write about it and make light of it. You can read it and laugh at how stupid anyone must be to stay-the-course in these situations. But get this: When you're in it up to your eyeballs, you'll swear up and down it doesn't apply to you. No kidding.

7 ways to know when it's time for a change

Your ironclad armor of compartmentalized denial is starting to crack. That can manifest itself in lots of ways. You might feel really anxious all the time but you can't figure out why. Or, when you're all alone and nobody's watching, you can actually hear yourself start to whimper a little when, until then, you didn't even know what whimper meant.

The only people that still think you're on the right track are suck-ups who depend on you for a job. Also weak-minded yes-men and tired old board directors who would rubberstamp anything you put in front of them -- like some of HP's board directors did with Leo Apotheker when they hired the guy without even meeting him.

You can't even believe the things that are coming out of your mouth. And, while you're talking, the word "tool" keeps trying to make it's way from your subconscious to your wagging tongue, causing you to draw embarrassing blanks, sort of like what happened to Rick Perry in that republican debate.

Everywhere you go, out of the corner of your eye, you see this giant elephant in the room. Not only that, it's getting harder and harder not to look at it. That's right, the mind plays funny tricks on those who insist on leading a duplicitous life. Think I'm kidding? Okay, maybe I am a little, but just about the giant elephant.

You can no longer keep a straight face when you're pitching people. When I was running a startup back in the dot-com bubble I spent six months trying to raise our second round of funding and, after a while, I began to realize that, if I was a VC, I wouldn't fund this turkey in a million years. True story.

You keep coming up with ever more creative ways of deluding yourself. Also spinning your disasters to look like great successes, changing the metrics as you go along, and trying to convince yourself and your team that everything's going along just hunky dory when everyone knows it isn't. Reminds me of the last two administrations -- Obama and Bush.

You're literally exhausted from running away from the truth all the time.

In all seriousness, I've seen far too many leaders run their companies and organizations into the ground because they lacked the courage to face the truth, the humility to admit they may have been wrong, and the genuine self-respect to do the right thing, step aside, and let someone else take over.

Do us all a favor and at least try to be objective, will you?