To Quit Or Not To Quit?- Here’s The Answer

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh

The insight I share this week is about failure, and is a bit controversial. Some will love it; others, like me when I first saw it, might reject it out of hand. But with time, it grows on you. I now like it a lot. What about you?

Business is changing so fast that we don’t have time to stick with mistakes. We have to keep facing reality, trying new things, making sure we are putting our focus and energies behind what is delivering the returns…for our employers, clients, careers. It’s not an easy path to follow. It requires real discipline.

And it is with that in mind that I loved (on reflection) the quote from the crusty old Brigadier in Evelyn Waugh’s “The Sword of Honour Trilogy”, who said to his leaders this about the first rule of attack. It is a startling insight for each of us, every day. Here is it:

“Never Reinforce Failure.”

Instead, says the Brigadier, “…. don’t get mixed up with asses getting in a mess- the best help you can give is to go straight on biffing the enemy where it hurts him the most….”

When I read that, I paused and thought hard about what this meant, and what I could take from it.

I have always believed in  ‘never quitting.” It was the family motto of the Kennedy’s. Walt Disney famously said: “The difference between winning and losing is most often simply not quitting.” Persistence is more powerful than brilliance, and all that jazz.

Sometimes, I realised as I reflected on the ‘Never Reinforce Failure’ counsel, I go a step too far….in trying to sell an idea to a client that they clearly don’t like….to keep supporting a leadership team of a business that is consistently missing its targets…. or persisting with a strategy that is not delivering fast enough returns. Or with a relationship that is just not responding.


Pause a moment. Reflect upon what you are doing and where you are putting your energies. Are you getting the right returns? For you, your employer, your clients? Where are you reinforcing failure? Where are you putting time, energy and resource into something which is not working? Is it time to stop? Probably YES.

Rather, would it be better to spend that time and energy on stuff that IS working and IS delivering- to accelerate progress on the good stuff rather than waste more time, emotion and money on the bad?

I haven’t yet nailed how to interpret the crusty Brigadier’s advice. It needs to be balanced with ensuring we don’t quit where we should not quit, and we do keep persisting where we need to.

But I am sure that if we look hard and face reality at some of the issues where things are not going well, that maybe- just maybe- the answer is to not put more against that. Rather- reinforce success where you ARE winning.

It kind of makes sense. I am giving it a go. You?

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13 Responses to To Quit Or Not To Quit?- Here’s The Answer

  1. Carolyn Hyams October 23, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Great advice yet again Chris. We’ve actually recently applied this rule to our marketing efforts. If it’s not working, stop doing it over and over again and focus on the stuff that does work. Saves a lot of time, blood, sweat, tears… and money!

  2. John Skinner / Catalyst October 23, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Totally agree, it’s never a linear judgement, but a couple of truisms NEVER go away.

    1. The definition of idiocy – doing the same things and expecting a different outcome
    2. We MUST persist with the development of innovation – including the acceptance that failure is an intrinsic part of the learning & breakthrough process

    Both are critical to the future health of our industry /companies, otherwise we’ll continue to become non-differentiated commodity suppliers – with low margins & profits.
    This stuff keeps me awake at night! Best wishes, John

  3. Grant Butler October 23, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Thanks Chris – for this and all your recent posts. I reckon you’re on the right track and that it’s in line with 80/20 thinking (work out which 20% is adding most value and focus on that). Maybe you just need a softer term than ‘quit’ – ‘strategic realignment’ perhaps…!

  4. Richard October 23, 2013 at 10:43 am #

    Agree 100%

  5. Michael Finger October 23, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    I’ve applied this without realising. A program I run offer assistance to customers/dealers. For those not engaging in the program, we’ve skipped on to those who will embrace it and use it to their advantage.

  6. Jayne Albiston October 23, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    Perfect – decided this a couple of weeks ago but needed to hear the reinforcement. Thank you!

  7. Arif Cemil Ozcanlar October 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Thanks a lot for another great post to think upon. While it is making sense “not to reinforce failure”, but I could not stop remembering Thomas Edison’s famous quote:

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

    My guess, wisdom here is to identifying failure and progress.

    For sure I will put more thoughts on it and I am looking forward for more.

    Best Regards

  8. Fiona October 23, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    yep – I needed to hear this message this week. Interesting to ponder that quote and get to the nub of its meaning. Thanks Chris. Fiona

  9. MC Hammer October 23, 2013 at 3:18 pm #


  10. Chandler Nguyen October 23, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

    Thanks Chris for the nice post. I think one of the key difference is to know when to pivot and when to keep on trying and don’t make it too personal.

  11. Paul Alexander October 24, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    What’s more frightening is when your senior colleague doesn’t accommodate success thru failure – the sure-fire killer of breakthrough ideas – with the result that it brings everyone down, it extinguishes that small fire that keeps you going without lunch, and it bruises your desire and ability to care and give your all on the next job, thus initiating the downward spiral towards mediocrity… So I commend you for your ability to consider all possibilities. That makes a world of difference to someone like me

  12. Simon Lusty October 24, 2013 at 8:56 am #

    Great article Chris, so many truths in there!

  13. Chris Savage October 24, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    Thanks to all for your comments. For some reason I was not getting them on my iphone so have not been answering and thanking as received. One point I wanted to make- the Brigadier’s comment was related to ‘the first rule of attack’….so he was saying when you are trying to push hard forward and make progress on something, there is a point where reinforcing defeat is a mistake. Often in life, I guess, as MC Hammer highlights with his WD 40 comment, persistence pays off. (The ’40’ relates to the 40th attempt they made to get the product right!). But when you are driving an effort…that’s where is makes sense to support the initiatives that ARE working and delivering…rather than spending time you don’t have on stuff that is not delivering. Again- thanks for your input. Chris

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