Monday, November 08, 2021

The Sunk Cost Trap and Opportunity Costs: How Competitors Can Attack You


Imagine that your firm's leaders have made a substantial investment over a 15-year period in a particular strategy.  They are investing roughly $20 million in operating costs per year in that strategy, and they have made considerable capital investments as well.  The strategy is not working.  It has not yielded the desired results.  However, key leaders are incredibly committed to the plan.  They are mired in the sunk cost trap, throwing good money after bad, in part because they do not want to admit their grave error publicly.  Leadership has been able to survive this flawed strategy because other aspects of the business have generated enough profit to cover for this sunk cost trap.  With profits generally strong for many years, leaders have not had to acknowledge their mistake or pay a price for their error.  What's the problem though?  Well, there are considerable opportunity costs associated with the sunk cost problem.  The damage to an organization is not just the good money thrown after bad; it's the OPPORTUNITY COST of the flawed strategy.  What other opportunities are we not able to pursue because we are allocating scarce resources in this manner?

Now put yourself in the shoes of a key competitor for a moment. How could they take advantage of this situation?  Well, they could pursue a costly strategy that requires hefty investment, but is likely to draw away many customers from their rival.    The company stuck in the sunk cost trap might not be able to respond effectively.  They don't have the resources to respond, because they are still throwing good money after bad on a losing strategy.   The opportunity costs become a huge liability at that point.   The lesson: If you are looking to gain an edge over a rival, check to see if they are throwing good money after bad, and see if you can put them in a tough spot by making an investment in a strategy that they are not able to match due to scarce resources.  

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