Setting sail in the wake of sunk costs

Why go down with the ship?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a maritime enthusiast or saw Titanic once back in 1997: most people are familiar with the concept that when tragedy strikes, the captain will go down with his ship. There’s a certain noble reverence in the visual of a captain standing proud at the helm of his vessel as it sinks below the waves. 

We here at JXM ask this question when it comes to bad ideas: Why do so many executives, team leaders, and project managers cling tightly to bad ideas as they flounder and sink? Of course, we know the answer. It’s usually a combination of dignity and hubris (often, both), culminating in the sunk cost fallacy.

We get it. It’s hard to ignore all the time, energy, effort, and money that goes into big initiatives. it’s even harder to ignore the combination of dread, shame, and anxiety that accompanies admitting failure. Like imposter syndrome or confirmation bias, the sunk cost fallacy can easily get the best of us—even when we’re being logical. Let’s talk about how to use that logic to cut ties with our anchors, right the ship, avoid the flotsam, and set sail behind better winds. 

Avoid the siren song

There’s nothing like a good idea, and the eagerness and excitement that accompany one are almost intoxicating. It’s like a siren song in your head, calling you to put your concept into action and reap the sweet, sweet rewards that will surely follow. Safe to say, if you’re familiar with pirate lore, you know how that ends.  

In marketing (and across the scope of business operations) the best way to avoid the shipwreck of a bad idea is to drop anchor and assess the validity of your concepts before you set sail. At JXM, we extensively research, test, and model our ideas both before deployment and throughout execution. We hold even our self-proclaimed best ideas to a high standard of vetting as we determine when, how, and why it’s ideal. Trust us when we say that we’ve seen a few mermaids turn into manatees after scrutinizing them.

It’s worth noting that muting the siren song doesn’t mean ignoring your gut. All we’re saying is that a truly good idea will still float in choppy waters. 

Explore your shipwrecks

Even the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. It’s possible to do everything right and still find yourself at the helm of an initiative that’s taking on water faster than you and your crew can bail it out. Now, it’s decision time. Do you keep bailing, knowing it’s a losing battle? Stand stoically knowing you’re about to drown? Or, do you salvage as much as you can, abandon ship, and live to sail another day?

The answer is obviously the latter, but the sunk cost fallacy tricks so many people into ignoring the gravity of the situation. “We spent $X on this; we can’t just abandon it” or “I know if I just fix Y, we can get it back on track.” At this moment, it’s vital to recognize that the situation is what it is, not what it was supposed to be. You’re not dealing with your original idea: you’re dealing with a waterlogged version that’s no longer worth what you put into it. 

Instead of playing violin as the Titanic slips below the surface, take the James Cameron approach and explore the wreckage. What can you learn from the experience? What went wrong and how did it impact the model you originally had in mind? What variables weren’t accounted for? 

The failure of an idea isn’t the death of that idea: it’s an opportunity to do better next time

 Live to sail again

Let’s revisit the idea of the captain going down with the ship. It’s not a death sentence—rather, it’s a proclamation of leadership. It’s the captain’s duty to act selflessly and responsibly, and to put the needs of those aboard before his own. The buck stops with him, the same as it stops with a project manager or team leader. And, like the ship captain, it’s their duty to act with integrity. That means knowing when to accept when it’s time to get off the ship. 

Embracing the sunk cost fallacy doesn’t mean accepting defeat. It’s not about failure. It’s about having the wherewithal to recognize when an idea doesn’t pan out as-intended, and the forethought to cap losses instead of accruing them. The person who can do this and who has the courage to survey the shipwreck is someone worthy of being at the helm of the next big idea. 

Ready to set sail on your next big campaign? You’ll need an experienced first mate to help you chart your course.


Contact JXM and let us help you make sure your idea floats.