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Dead horse strategies: when a project dies

David Jago
January 16, 2012

When you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.

This fairly well known piece of humour contrasts ‘Dakota tribal wisdom’ with what supposedly happens in the corporate, government, and non-profit world. Instead, we try one or more of the following strategies:

  • Appoint a committee to study the horse.
  • Blame the rider and hire outside contractors to ride the dead horse.
  • Buy a stronger whip.
  • Declare that since the horse is dead, we must now ride smarter, not harder.
  • Harness several dead horses together for increased speed.
  • Kill all the other horses, so this one will look the same.
  • Promote the horse to a supervisory position.
  • Shorten the track.
  • Threaten the horse with termination.

So what is it with this flogging a dead horse? Why do we do this? What factors lead us to persist with an idea, a decision, a strategy beyond its use-by date? Some that occur to me are:

Being unwilling or unable to let go of what you’ve invested so far
‘We can’t stop now, because we’ll lose everything we’ve invested so far’. This is also known as the ‘sunk cost fallacy‘, the Concorde fallacy, or ‘throwing good money after bad’. There is often a sense of “if we just do this one extra thing or tweak, then it will all come good”.

Identifying if you’re in this situation depends on knowing whether the prior investment is irretrievably gone. In turn, this depends on stepping back and evaluating the situation objectively. From there, you can develop and communicate realistic options.

‘Political’ pressure

The client and/or other senior stakeholders want to keep going. This is often connected to all those sunk costs. Or sometimes it’s their pet idea on the line, and they don’t want to lose it.

Dealing with this depends on an effective governance group. It needs people who can ‘speak truth to power’. This is often very problematic in very hierarchical and/or power-driven organisational cultures.

Peer pressure
Who wants to look ineffectual if and when their projects start to go pear-shaped? Especially with their fellow professionals? Or sometimes other people seem to want to keep going either actively in what they say or do, or passively by being noncommittal. This is the dreaded group-think.

Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a pre-fabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought… For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, contrived and dishonest. But the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. —John F Kennedy

So, what’s your experience of riding dead horses? Please comment below.

David Jago
David Jago has more than 30 years experience in enabling effective participation and collaboration in the public, private and community sectors. He has worked in both urban and rural contexts, across Australia, East Timor and India. He uses the Technology of Participation™ (ToP) as the engine for his work as a certified ToP facilitator, an authorised ToP trainer and a qualified ToP assessor. His business, Smart Meetings, has been going since 2004.
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One thought on “Dead horse strategies: when a project dies

  1. Great analogy, David.
    I often use this myself when confronting clients with the sometimes harsh reality that it isn’t working and a change is needed.
    Brian Philllips

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