What are Cliffs, Cul-de-sacs, and Dips? The Dip, by Seth Godin

(cross-posted from my other blog, Nonprofit Update.)

When is it time to push through the obstacles and keep trying to achieve?

That is the topic of Seth Godin’s book, The Dip. Since the book was written in 2007, I am late to the party. Still want to write about it because most people I talk to are not familiar with his work.

We need to distinguish between cliffs, cul-de-sacs, and dips.

Cliffs are those situations where things seem to be going okay but are going to collapse eventually. The best illustration today is the newspaper industry. If you’re working for a newspaper, then your industry, your company, and you are headed for a cliff. Advertising has cratered and circulation is dropping on an accelerating basis. If you work in that industry, there is a cliff in your future.

Cul-de-sacs look appealing but do not go anywhere. Hard as you try, you just won’t get to where you want to go. Things will never get any better.

The really serious problem here, as Mr. Godin points out, is the opportunity cost. While you are trying, trying, and trying to make progress in this dead-end situation, you could have made tremendous progress with that same effort if you had been working on something that had potential.

An example cited by Mr. Godin is the space shuttle.

I’m going to pursue that concept.  The last space shuttle launch will take place this week. It has been a good run. This will be 135th mission. What have we accomplished with say, the last 50 or 75 launches? Have we made progress in the last 100 launches that are comparable to the stretch in knowledge and ability we found in the first half-dozen shuttle launches or on any three consecutive Apollo, Gemini, or Mercury shots?

Did a little research.  In 12 years, there were 6 moon landings with NASA spending $44 billion (current dollars) which was on average 2.50% of federal spending.  In the 39 following years, there were 137 shuttle missions (and a lot of unmanned projects) with NASA spending $429 billion (current dollars) which is on average 0.83% of total federal spending. I won’t bother trying to convert that to constant dollars.

Here’s the point:  Within a decade of President Kennedy’s challenge we made it to the moon. In the following four decades we went into orbit. Earth orbit. 135 times. The last several decades have been one huge cul-de-sac for the shuttle program.

Cul-de-sacs are fun, exciting, and they feel like progress. But they really just don’t go anywhere. Here’s the question: what could you be doing instead? What is the opportunity cost?

Dips are times that are very hard and success is uncertain. However if we push through we will achieve incredible success. Losing Grissom, White, and Chaffee on Apollo 1 was a horrible dip. The near disaster of Apollo 13 was a dip. One of my favorite lines from the movie Apollo 13 was “let’s work the problem, people”. The response to both of those situations illustrates pushing through the dip. The result? Walking on the moon. Six trips, 12 men. Cool.

If we push through the dip, we get to be best in the world. More on that topic later.

All of this is leading us to figure out when we should push through a situation and when we should just quit.

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