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In business and elsewhere, we sometimes get into a situation where we find that the methods or strategy we are using aren’t working. When this happens, it is often difficult to admit failure and try something different. This has been evident with the military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, where inappropriate strategy led to cries of six more months, give it six more months!

Even when it’s clear that a plan isn’t working, we have strong inclinations against changing. Research conducted back in the 1970s helped to show why. In the study, people were asked to pick a research and development strategy for a business. They were then informed that the strategy was not working well at all. They were then asked what course of action they wanted to take – should they continue with the original plan, or try something new. The decision that was made depended mostly on who made it. If the same person who chose the original strategy made the decision, he or she usually decided to continue with the original plan. When a different person made the decision, the subject  usually decided to try something else. This showed that people were predisposed against changing course because to do so would be to admit they made a mistake.

No one likes to admit to a mistake or a bad decision, and this is even more true of an executive, someone who supposedly holds his or her job because of superior judgment about these matters, as well as the pressure executives often feel to be right. It’s also not easy because admitting to things you cannot do, or admitting that something isn’t working, is admitting to limitations, and may even be seen by some as a lack of ambition or even skill.

But good leaders know their job is to make strategy and to also make sure that the strategy is working. Part of that is determining what things they should not be doing. They know the importance of comparative advantage — that businesses, and even countries, need to look at what they do well and stick with that.

In reality, knowing what not to do or when to pull the plug on something, is not a failure of leadership – it is the exact opposite. It is effective leadership, according to business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer. When people fail to see what they cannot or should not be doing, resources get wasted, false hopes continue, and the mess persists. But to make a hardheaded evaluation of what a company’s strengths and weaknesses are, and what it can and cannot do, is something that can only help a company.

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