Skip to Content

How to Apply the ‘3 Strikes Rule’ at Work

Cardinals v YankeesCardinals v Yankees
Roger Maris of the New York Yankees strikes out during the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. Focus on Sport—Getty Images

The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Today’s answer to the question, “How do you know when to give up on a failing project?” is written by Dean Aloise, global HR consulting leader at Conduent HR Services.

The word “fail” has earned a bad rap because of its negative connotation; it implies that something didn’t work out the way it was planned. But what many people forget is that success is often achieved through failure. With every failed attempt, a new lesson can be learned and applied. So I encourage everyone to fail sometimes—and when you do, do it early and do it often.

When you’re dealing with a complex task, it can be difficult to know when to move on. Here is some advice on how to know when it’s time to jump ship on a failing project:

Three strikes and you’re out

If you’re working on a project and it’s not turning out as expected, I suggest failing three times before giving up on it. For every missed attempt, apply your lessons learned to the next try—and make sure you are using new and innovative techniques. This can be a hard practice to follow in a large organization, since attempts to try new and risky ideas tend to get clogged up in bureaucracy. It’s precisely these complex organizations that achieve company-wide success through strong, gutsy leaders that make noise, put themselves at personal risk, and are not afraid to fail.

I’ve applied this thinking throughout my entire career. It can feel unnatural to give up on something I care about, but looking at the bigger picture helps me realize that my company’s success is more important than a pet project that isn’t working out.

Reevaluate constantly

In a professional services or consulting environment, having the right senior-level talent is necessary to run a successful business—and the key to growing that business is to keep hiring additional top talent. However, this can be a risky venture in itself, since senior level game-changers usually come with very high price tags. If you hire the wrong person, you don’t want to be stuck with the cost of their salary and other related expenses, which will never pay off.

 

To avoid such a situation, set clear expectations up front with the new hire, and if things are going off the rails in the first six months, proactively intervene and explain that this might not be a good fit. Make sure you go through proper performance management processes. If things don’t shape up quickly, cut ties and move on. This is an area in which it’s okay to fail, as long as you own up to it early and try again with a new candidate soon afterward.

I’ve also applied this thinking to innovative product offerings. Only a small percentage of new ideas or concepts are going to catch on and be successful in the long run. So when we’ve tried to capture new revenue streams in emerging areas in our industry, we pay attention to early signs of interest from our clients and the market in general. If we don’t see a pipeline of buyers within the first six months of pounding the pavement to get the word out about the new offering, we put it on the shelf and pivot to something different.

I can think of 10 new offerings my team dreamed up, built, and showed to potential buyers in the last few years. Two of those offerings are selling successfully, winning us new clients and building revenue streams. Twenty percent is a decent success rate in my book; if we weren’t willing to fail on the other eight attempts, we never would have found two solutions that worked.