Know When It's Time to Bail

Last Updated Apr 11, 2008 11:26 AM EDT

Gen. David PetraeusThrowing good money after bad is idiotic, but it happens all the time. Sales reps, sales teams, and entire companies continue pursue deals and strategies that aren't going to happen, simply because it's too painful to admit that the time and money already spent has been wasted.

This failure to bail means that the bad decision -- even after everyone knows in their heart it was a bad decision -- continues to wreak havoc on the bottom line. (This comment on Monday's post is a brilliant summary of this kind of dopey behavior.)

Psychologists call this phenomenon cognitive dissonance, and it happens to entire organizations and (especially) governments. I'll get to the "government" part in a minute, but first I want to tell you a true story from my own business experience.

I personally saw cognitive dissonance destroy a major American corporation, DEC. The "group think" of DEC executive team around 1990 was that minicomputers were the wave of the future and Intel-based computers (PCs and servers) were a flash in the pan. (Ooops.)

It was my job at DEC to go into strategy meetings and explain that, based on real market data, minicomputer sales were flat year-to-year while PC sales were doubling every two years and now outsold mainframes -- dollar for dollar -- by two to one.

When I put up the slide showing that minicomputers were basically a dead market, a hush would come over the room. I'd patiently explain that the company was pursuing a strategy that made no financial sense. This is where the cognitive dissonance came in. Everyone in the room would admit that the data was valid (how could they not?), and then the meeting would proceed to discuss sales and marketing strategies based upon the notion that minicomputers were a growth market.
At DEC, it was easier to keep pursuing the fantasy than to force top management to admit that they'd made a colossal strategic blunder, and then go through the career-wrenching changes necessary to fix that blunder. The corporate-wide failure to deal with the pain of admitting stupidity and changing strategy created a situation where DEC's crack sales teams (the best in the world at the time) did not have products that people wanted to buy. The end result was the failure of a great American corporation.

Why am I bring this up now? I think there might be another major instance of cognitive dissonance going on today that threatens more than just a corporation. To wit: I've been watching Gen David Petraeus in front of Congress pitching the idea that the Iraq War warrants continued expenditure of money and lives. Petraeus makes a strong case for the pain that would result from a withdrawl from Iraq.

I understand his arguments, but I can't help but wonder if, for the Bush administration, it's simply too painful to admit that they made a dunderhead blunder, and that it's neither in the long-term nor short-term interest of the United States to spend trillions more dollars, and thousands more lives, to prop up an ineffectual puppet government that's allied itself to the terrorist state of Iran.

I'm no expert on the subject, but the idea we can prevent a civil war between religious and tribal factions that have hated each other for over a thousand years sounds a lot, to me at least, like the idea that DEC was going to sell thousands of new minicomputers into a dead market.

Even some of the arguments (like "it would dishonor those who have already died") have the same "flavor" as the arguments I heard inside DEC for continuing the flawed strategy. Similarly, the persistent use of minimal evidence of success (at DEC every minor sale was "evidence" the strategy was viable) feels the same, too.

In short, I suspect that continuing the Iraq War might be a colossal case of cognitive dissonance, with horrible long-term consequences. It's already making mincemeat out of our economy, our military forces, and our world standing. And I suspect that damage is only going to get worse over time.

I can't help but suspect that the price (and pain) of getting out now might not ultimately be much smaller than the long term price (and pain) that we'll end up paying if we remain.

Well, that's what I'm starting to think. (And I'm more than willing to entertain comments explaining why I'm full of it.) But I'm curious what you guys think:


UPDATE (4/11): Several commenters have accused me of being a "liberal" as a result of this post. As a point of fact, I gave this post an Iraq War twist immediately after reading "Onward the Revolution" by my favorite columnist Pat Buchanan. Since he and I trade emails fairly frequently, I'll have to let him know that he, like me, is apparently now a liberal. I'm sure he'll be suitably amused.