My costs were sunk - what's one more year?
It's funny how certain memories burn themselves into your psyche.
I remember one Christmas Eve so vividly. It was a cold and clear night in outport Newfoundland and I was about 7 years old. I was walking with my parents and little sister to a neighbor's house and had just finished watching Karl Wells on CBC TV where he convincingly described to his viewers how Santa had just received clearance from the Gander airport to deliver presents across Newfoundland.
Of course, as a rational 7 year old (or as rational as anyone could be at that age), I thought that Karl was stretching the truth more than just a little. But as I looked up at the sky that night and - I kid you not - saw a shooting star streak out of sight over the looming basalt cliff behind my childhood home, I was willing to let my rationality slide for one more year.
To my kids, the sunk cost is worth it
My kids still believe in Santa Claus. My daughter, who is 8, is even more rational and logical than I was at her age, yet she is still outwardly committed to the idea that Santa and his reindeer are the real deal.
She is a rarity. For those kids living in countries where Santa Claus mythology is an oral tradition, they usually stop believing somewhere between 6 and 8 years old.
In reality, I know the gig has long been up for my daughter and her belief in Père Noël. My wife and I teach our kids to be critical thinkers and when my little girl eventually asks me directly if Santa is real, I'll respond truthfully. I think she's known Santa isn't real for at least a couple of years but isn't ready to give up her belief in Santa (or other fantastical beings like the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy) just yet.
Why keep up the charade? If her rational self is telling her that Santa and his flying reindeer defy what she knows to be true and logical, why still believe?
Because at this point in her childhood, she has more to lose than gain once her belief is busted. She's invested a tremendous amount of energy and love into the idea of this altruistic and mysterious being and isn't about to give that up cold turkey.
And therein lies the reason - investment. Continued belief in Santa Claus, long past an age where doubt has already crept in, is a great example of where a sunk cost can influence a decision, and that's not a bad thing.
In my last article I wrote about how sunk costs and the corresponding behavior of loss aversion can pollute decision making. However, I neglected to mention that there are situations where consideration of sunk costs are most definitely worth it - like believing in Santa Claus!
When sunk costs are worth it - cut Santa some slack
It's easy to take a hard line with sunk costs and how they should never impact your decision making, but it's not always that simple.
Here are three situations to consider when sunk costs should influence how you make decisions:
1. When your value or belief system is involved
Your values dictate how you live your life and run your business. The outcome of your decisions - and goals - are all a result of how your values guide you. At the end of the day, you have to live with and own every decision you make.
If you are a leader who has guided your company to invest in environmental stewardship initiatives, only to see changes to the tax code greatly negate any financial benefit, do you ignore your values and what's already been invested? Probably not. These investments are worthy of your consideration when determining how you will support these initiatives in the future.
2. When you're in the investment valley of death
Morbid name aside, this is the stage of funding for any start up or new project where there's a big initial investment and no profit.
While an ongoing assessment of continued investment during this period is essential, it's usually the grit and perseverance of the entrepreneur that determines success (this is the stage I'm at for my business and I'm looking forward to the other side) and the time to question investment is not when you're in the initial phase of executing your business plan.
3. When the sunk costs are investments in people
There have been a few occasions in my career where I canceled training for someone on my team, often having already paid (sunk) the full cost of their training, just to free them up to help hit a monthly or quarterly target.
This was a huge mistake.
From an economic perspective, training costs can easily fall into the sunk cost category when business needs change. However, I've learned the hard way that the best investment you can make is in your people. It's the gift that keeps on giving and the benefits are much more diverse than just an economic outcome.
In most cases, sunk costs are irrelevant when making decisions about the future…but not always. Just ask my daughter! (Maybe ask her in a few weeks. Let's get through this holiday season first).
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I just finished re-reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and the timing couldn't be more perfect. Today wraps up the busiest shopping days of the year (Black Friday and Cyber Monday) and there are so many lessons in this book about human behavior that can be extracted and applied to better understand why it is we feel so compelled not to miss out on deep discounts and VIP-just-for-you promotions.
For me, there's one lesson that stands out above all others as it is so often encountered when running a business: the lengths we'll go to avoid a loss. This aversion to loss causes us to buy things we don't need because of a perceived loss if we don't. And it influences decisions we make in the pursuit of results which are heavily biased toward how much time or money has been spent instead of how much will be spent.
Here are the 4 tips to tame your loss aversion:
Loss aversion and sunk costs - the chicken and the egg
As Kahneman points out in his book, any organism is well served with the continued gift of life when perceived threats are given more urgency than an opportunity to benefit. The hunter stalking a gazelle (gain) on the plains of Africa needed to likewise keep an eye open for lions lurking in the bushes lest he is what's for dinner tonight. This same response to a threat pops up in business when we come face-to-face with a potential loss.
Think about it. When your reputation is on the line, and you've invested tens of thousands (or more) of dollars into a new project or idea, the last thing you want to do is to admit that you’re wrong or cut your losses. It's easier to bury your head in the sand and face reality after you've burned out and have no hope of recovering your continued investment, right?
As a manager, you're probably all too familiar with sunk costs, but for those of us a little rusty on the subject, let's take a minute to refresh what is meant by sunk costs and loss aversion.
A sunk cost is any cost that has already been paid with no possibility of recovery. Sunk costs should have no impact on future decisions. For example, salaries, leases, research and development investment, and advertising expenses often fall into the sunk cost category as these costs cannot (usually) be recovered. The value of dilapidated assets like the machine in the image at the top of this article can also be sunk costs. Even though it may have cost $200k new and had $100k in repairs over its lifetime, a contractor should never consider these costs when determining whether or not to buy a new machine for an upcoming project.
Loss aversion refers to the disproportionate pain we feel from a loss versus the pleasure we receive from an equivalent gain. This is why losing $10 out of your pocket can ruin your day, while finding a $10 bill on the ground brings just a short burst of satisfaction.
Loss aversion is how we generally respond to sunk costs and this behavior can greatly influence how you make less than ideal decisions, and take a long time to do so. In fact, downright bad decisions are often made when you place too much weight on how much time and money has already been invested in an idea (project, customer, or employee) and not enough emphasis on how that time or money should best be used in the future.
Black Friday - loss aversion equals more AirPods
Getting back to Black Friday.
Retailers and marketers do a compelling job convincing us that a failure to buy causes some sort of a loss. By using time-limited offers, limited availability, and steep discounts, retailers guide people into thinking that an economic loss is imminent if they don’t purchase now. Our brain is telling us that to miss out on a savings is tantamount to a "loss", even though we could probably "gain" more by simply choosing not to buy or waiting until the items we really need go on sale again in the future.
As I write this article, an email just popped up in my inbox from a big box retailer advertising Apple AirPods at their lowest price EVER via an exclusive discount, available only to me for the next 2 hours. Talk about piling on loss aversion! Well done BB.
This fear of missing out can be a far greater motivator than never having known about the deal in the first place. That’s what marketers are counting on.
Lessons from a dealership - my experience in loss aversion
Finishing Kahneman's book and reflecting on how his lessons in behavioral economics apply to Black Friday got me to thinking about my own experience running a large heavy equipment dealership and how loss aversion can have a profound impact not just on the results of the dealership, but on the life of the general manager.
The aversion to loss is particularly salient in the dealership environment with respect to sunk costs in large part because of the nature of how dealerships operate. In the heavy equipment world, uptime is king (or queen). When a customer calls for a part, needs a service, or is looking to buy a machine, it's the job of everyone in the dealership to respond to these requests, and fast. While this energetic environment can be exciting and sure makes the day pass quickly, it can also contribute to rapid-fire decision-making where managers rarely have the time to consistently make well-informed decisions. As a result, this often means that decisions are heavily biased toward loss aversion.
Here are a few examples where it's easy to hold on to sunk costs when you're averse to a perceived loss of time or money:
I've been there. In running a large heavy equipment dealership, I've experienced first-hand the stubborn aversion to loss when reflecting on sunk costs. Cutting your losses is never an easy decision to make, but with a few simple guidelines, you can become much better at identifying when you should pursue the future benefit and not focus on how much is already invested.
It’s not all bad - loss aversion helps you persevere
Some loss aversion is a good thing.
Successful entrepreneurs know how to persevere through adversity, even when it seems like you are throwing good money after bad, to pursue a goal. This perseverance is a big differentiator between those that succeed and those that don't.
Alternatively, some of the most successful entrepreneurs are those who are more apt to recognize that taking a small loss now on a failing project can lead to big returns down the road when their resources are better allocated.
Step off the escalator of commitment
The more you commit, the more likely you are to keep committing. Here are 4 tips to help you step off the escalator of commitment and to only continue investing your time and money when it makes sense to do so:
Adjusting your bias toward loss aversion can be tough. The key is to recognize that it's natural to feel this way and that it's a perfectly acceptable response and good business practice to accept a loss and move on when there are better uses of your time and money.
Looks like I've spent too much time writing as I missed out on the once-in-a-lifetime discount for AirPods. I guess I'll just have to stick with my wired earbuds for now!
One of the most important skills you need to have as a manager is that of decision making. But here's the problem: indecisiveness can impede the efforts of even the most adept decision makers. Fortunately (insert sarcasm!), there are hundreds of ways to approach decision making and even more books and opinions on the matter. In this post, I want to share the three inclinations to indecisiveness I discovered during my development as a manager, and three methods to overcome them.
Decision making overload
When I first became a manager, I was given some sage advice by one of the engineering greybeards: the ability to make results-oriented decisions could make or break a career.
I realized that I had a lot to learn.
So I read whatever I could about decision making theory and practice. A lot. I sought out opinions about decision making from anyone who would offer them. Who knew that flipping a coin would be a method alive and well in the business world?
I went to grad school to study systems engineering and analytical methods for holistic decision making. And of course, I made a lot of decisions – good and not so good – along the way and measured the results to determine the methods that worked and those that didn’t.
What I discovered are the three things that contribute to indecisiveness, and three methods to power through them. My approach here isn't to offer another opinion; rather, condense the methods I've used and watched other leaders successfully employ to make results-oriented decisions critical to their business.
The inclination to indecisiveness
Making decisions is hard and mentally taxing, and more often than not, we default (even for a short time) to a state of indecisiveness. The inclination to indecisiveness can be summed up in the following three points:
To power through the impenetrable wall of indecisiveness, here are three methods to help you make better decisions, faster.
3 proven methods to cover 99% of your decision making
In my last blog post, I identified the 3 main types of decisions (low risk, medium risk, high risk) and the three factors to consider for each (people, impact, complexity). Here are the three proven methods to use when making either type of decision.
1. Use your intuition
2. Use a pro/con list (T-chart)
3. Use a decision matrix
Stay off the pot
Spend your time and energy where it counts. Use your intuition for lower risk, more routine decisions and make them quickly.
Invest your time in high risk decisions and use an appropriate method like a decision matrix to guide you. With this method, you’ll make more high-quality decisions, faster, and with a better outcome.
Send me an email or comment below if you’d like access to simple templates for the pro/con list and decision matrix tools, or if you’d like more information about any of the topics discussed in this post.