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When Quitting Doesn't Suck

Last month I wrote a piece on quitting and the difference between throwing in the towel and failure. Since then I've read a book that challenged my thinking in several areas. The book is Dr. Henry Cloud's "Necessary Endings: The employees, businesses and relationship that all of us have to give up in order ot move forward." For anyone that believes perseverance and sticking it out are the only ways to success this book offers a cold dose of reality.

Now, I don't think Dr. Cloud and I are miles apart in our thinking, but I did recognize that my propensity to be optimistic and hopeful is not helpful in every situation. There were three key takeaways that I got from the book.

First, hopelessness is necessary to drive difficult cheange. Unless you see the present course of action as hopeless you will keep pressing on. You will keep throwing money into a losing business. You will keep wasting time in a dead end relationship. And you will keep giving too many chances to the wrong employee. Hopelessness is your ally in defeating the status quo, in getting unstuck from the ruts of bad habit and unproductive routine.

In order to get to the point of hopelessness Cloud says we must do the exact opposite of what every self help book teaches. Rather than envisioning the future as rosy and ideal, Cloud says to play the present tape forward. Imagine things progressing along their existing path. Imagine nothing gets better and things just run their course. What kind of misery are you in for? How ugly is it going to get? See it, touch it, taste it, and feel it in all its misery and ugliness.

Seeing where your present path is headed makes it easier to embrace the kind of uncomfortable change required to start a new course. It turns out this strategy is rooted in Cloud's understanding of how the past works, and it is an integral part to the second big takeaway.

Second, Cloud asserts the past will repeat itself unless: 1) you have a different person to believe in or 2) you have radically different behavior to believe in. This sounds like common sense but it isn't the way we live. Often hope is the only strategy for underperforming sales, struggling business units and dead beat spouses. I'm not saying we shouldn't exercise mercy and grace, but I am saying it's foolish to put your faith in something that has only let you down miserably, even if that something is your own behavior.

Third, when the necessary ending involves a person we must distinguish between the person and the behavior. The ending should start with the behavior and move on to the person only if they can't get things under control. Cloud makes a great point about employers who say "David needs to change," or "Sue needs to get her act together." The truth is neither David nor Sue is under any compulsion to change. Their behavior is working out just fine for them. It's the employer or the co-worker that is suffering.

Recognizing this problem allows an effective leader to have make unacceptable behaviour the employee's problem. A conversation detailing the behaviors that are now the employee's problem should be followed by a frank series of consequences for failure to change. In short, we need to stop making these folks problems our own. Give them back their problems and give them consequences for failure to change. After that let them deal with the consequences.

This book was refreshing for me because it gave me some clarity on things in my life and business that need to reach a point of hopelessness. Our time and billing system is a good example. For six years we had been trying to do innovative, value added work alongside timesheets and it just wasn't working. Reaching a degree of hopelessness allowed me to make some bold commitments, learn a new way of managing our workflow and implement real change in a very short amount of time.

In an attempt to reconcile Cloud's book with my previous post I can say that reaching necessary endings really isn't anything like quitting. On the contrary, getting to and accepting a necessary ending is about seeing the reality of our failures. Too often these gray areas masquerade as problems in need of perseverance and hope. The reality, while stark and depressing, is that pruning through the acceptance and hastening of necessary endings is the secret many successful entrepreneurs have learned the hard way. I highly recommend Cloud's book.

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