For centuries, one of the great pastimes of the English landed gentry was foxhunting. Part of that fun involved the occasional need to distract the hounds away from the scent they’d been following, which was accomplished by dragging a red herring – a real fish on a string – across the trail of the little furry guy.
Since this smelly practice was essentially lying to the hounds by leading them in a false direction, in time it produced a handy and enduring metaphor. Today, instead of being associated with horses, dogs, and stuffy English nobility in red coats, a “red herring” is more likely to represent someone attempting to divert attention from the real issue at hand in a conversation, debate, or negotiation. Magicians call it sleight-of-hand, and politicians call it politics. My grandmother would have called it lying.
Sorry, Grandma, but there are examples when introducing a red herring into a conversation doesn’t have to be sinister. For example, in a negotiation, it can be a handy defensive tactic, and in sales, it can confirm how important an objection really is to a prospect.
But there are other conversations when we introduce a red herring without realizing it – the ones we have with ourselves. And in those cases, since we know both sides of the debate, the result is what Grandma said: we lie to ourselves. I call that the personal red herring. It’s one thing to use red herrings as a communication tool, but when we use them on ourselves, it’s unproductive at best and disastrous at worst.
Shakespeare addressed this issue in arguably his most famous play. In Act I, Scene III, of Hamlet, Polonius is giving life lessons to his son, Laertes, including this immortal gem: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
If you can’t be true to yourself, you can’t be true to your dream. And a dream influenced by a personal red herring is an entrepreneurial train wreck waiting to happen.
The most difficult decision for any business owner is when to keep trying and when to pack it in. And the dilemma on those horns could range from a smaller piece of your plan – what to do about an underperforming employee or product line – all the way to a gut-check appraisal of the validity of your vision and viability of your business model.
During those times when my decision-making was in jeopardy of stinking like a dead fish, wisdom from one of my mentors became very useful. When he knew I was facing a “go/no go” decision, he asked, “Do you have a fighting chance or just a chance to fight?” Over the years, I’ve determined that the key to success in business, and indeed in life, may be as simple as answering that question to myself truthfully – even when it stings.
More than at any other time in my career, the pandemic has caused business owners to have go/no go conversations with themselves. Millions of these conversations are about taking their pre-pandemic business into the post-pandemic economy. In this case, they must be true to themselves when answering questions like:
• Am I doing enough of the right things to reset my business?
• Are we effectively determining our customers’ new expectations?
• Is our digital transformation strategy working?
• Do we have the right people, systems, and policies in place?
• Is our business model viable in the post-pandemic economy?
• Going forward, do I have a fighting chance or just a chance to fight?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but history shows difficult economic times actually increases interest in starting a new business, and just now, history is repeating itself. This exciting step always gives rise to hopeful entrepreneurs having quiet conversations with themselves, mostly about things they don’t know. Unlike veteran owners of mature businesses, instead of wondering if they have what it takes to go on, these newbies need to know if they have what it takes to begin with.
It’s understandable that your new venture is at once heavy on passion, a little delusion, and a truckload of faith while being light on critical mass. This may sound strange, but at this tenuous stage, your goal is not so much to maximize success as it is to minimize failure. And a big part of that goal is avoiding personal red herrings.
Another mentor taught me another way to tell if you’re dragging a dead fish across the trail of your own dream. He simply said, “Check your position.” If you’re contemplating a startup, check your position by answering hard questions like these without stinking up the place.
• Have I conducted enough due diligence to determine if my plan has a chance of success
There’s nothing wrong with having faith, but hope is not a business model. Just telling yourself things will work out is a personal red herring.
• Is my activity so far resulting in any successes – even little ones?
If the dogs won’t eat your dog food, convincing yourself that you just need more time and to work harder may be masking reality.
• Are my assumptions performing?
If the ratio of resources-to-opportunity is moving in the wrong direction, you’re either on the wrong trail or the wrong journey.
• Am I cut out for this?
Entrepreneurship might not be for you. If it was easy, monkeys would be doing it.
The pandemic has compressed a decade of marketplace disruption into a 12-month period. Regardless of which station you’re in along the business ownership journey, you’ll need all the information you can get to survive and thrive.
And you’ll need the truth – especially from yourself.
Write this on a rock … Use red herrings on your fox hounds, not on yourself because this above all: to thine own self be true.