Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sometimes when you climb a mountain, a flip flop is the right decision

I recently was on a hike in British Columbia and, at the end of 6 hours and about 4500 feet with at least as much to go (without much food or drink, or any flashlights or warm clothes), our entire group of hikers decided that we would not make it to the designated end of the hike and we would have to change our plan. Not only was this the right thing to do, but as I think about the situation, I am reminded that sometimes, given new data, changing the plan is the right thing to do.

Interestingly, changing course is an increasingly common 21st Century business move. It seems to have become more accepted in our world today -- when companies like Google (and lots of others) can introduce a product or make a business move and, if it doesn't work (for whatever reason), they quietly change things.

It's not clear that the press (at least the part that covers politics) has yet recognized that this kind of flexibility is both acceptable, and probably also necessary, in our time. In politics, this behavior is called a "flip flop" and candidates seem to be accused of flip flops on a regular basis these days.

But two fundamental questions arise here:

1.) Are flip flops inherently OK or are they a sign of weakness or unclear thinking?
2.) If flip flops are ok, what kinds of guidelines can be used to help understand when a decision represents good judgment or equivocation?

The answer to the first question seems relatively clear: of course flip flops are ok. We live in a real-time world and when new data comes along that leads to new insight and possibly a change of opinion, then, by all means, flip flop if it's the right thing to do.

Of course, the second question is the hard one: where does flexibility end and poor judgment or a weak value system begin? It's certainly a lot easier to be doctrinaire about opinions and inflexible about plans (this lends a certain clarity to life). But it doesn't seem a practical or sensible way to live in today's world. Yet, when do you change your course?

In reality, I don't know the specific answer to this question. And it's certainly one that start-up companies should constantly be looking at (both in business in general and certainly in their communications strategy): when do they stay the course -- even if it's hard; and when do they change directions? In general, it feels like good guidelines are:

• If your original plan was based on a well-thought-out rationale, then the default position should be to stay the course; but
• If, in spite of this default predisposition, new evidence leads you to conclude a change in course is necessary, then do it.

We live in a world today when flip flops -- with the right foundation -- are ok.

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