“Necessary endings”: why we need to make them to move forward

Introduction

We are all called upon to make endings in our work and personal lives. This can be a painful process that many of us postpone until it is too late. Endings can also be enabling – they can help us get unstuck and move forward in the right direction.

Learning how to end things is both a life-skill and a leadership-skill.

However, it is one of the things that my clients most struggle with – how to identify when to end something and knowing how to do it in the right way.

The book “Necessary Endings” by Dr Henry Cloud is profound and changed how I work with endings. It is the book that I most frequently recommend to clients. I encourage you to read it. This article pays homage to the wisdom in this book.

I recently went back to it for insight. I’m helping two organizations to undergo a strategic and financial restructure. I wanted to be sure we were doing the right things in the best way possible.

The concept of “necessary endings” has also been one of 10 principles of my consulting philosophy.

This article discusses some themes from the book that are most relevant to my consulting work. It adopts an organizational focus, while the book also explores the role of endings in our personal lives. This article will get you thinking more about the inevitability and value of endings.

What is a “necessary ending”?

There are times in our lives and in our organizations when something needs to end. This may be to protect our wellbeing or to enable us to move forward.

This ending can take many forms. It may involve firing a client, ending a relationship, retrenching an employee, suspending a service, changing suppliers, ending a mode of operation, replacing an old technology, shutting down a business unit or updating a process.

For example, I work with a research company where interviews used to be conducted with paper questionnaires, which were then quality checked and data captured. When this company equipped its interviewers with tablets in order to improve data quality, the position of data-capturer became obsolete. Several roles (e.g. couriers, printers) also came to an end. This created the space and resources for this company to invest in technical support and people who could automate business processes. The ending was necessary and created space for a new beginning.

We all need to make endings. Dr Cloud says:

“Endings are woven into the fabric of life itself, both when it goes well and also when it doesn’t. On the good side of life, for us to ever get to a new level, a new tomorrow, or the next step, something needs to give.”

Why make an ending?

Dr Cloud says that there are two main reasons why endings are required. The first is a natural consequence of growth, whether that be growth of our organizations or ourselves. The second reason to make an ending is because circumstances have changed.

Endings as a natural consequence of growth

All organizations reach a point in their existence when there is too much going on, and insufficient resources (e.g. time, money, people) to go around. Even those organizations with clear ambitions get stuck. They experience too much activity and too little progress.

To move forward again they need to identify what people, services, clients, business units etc. have become unnecessary and no longer contribute meaningfully to its vision.

This lesson is very evident in my own business. On several occasions I’ve become utterly overwhelmed with the amount of work and commitments I’d picked up. I’ve then needed to drastically cut back, refine my services and be much more selective about how I work and which organizations I work with. This has almost always been followed by a period of rapid growth as I’ve been able to focus my energy. Most recently I’ve needed to make some endings so I can focus more on writing.

Dr Cloud uses the metaphor of “life having seasons” and describes how trees and plants that grow quickly need to be “pruned” in order to focus their nutrients on growing a few healthy buds or fruits. This pruning process also helps to eliminate diseases or excessive growths. He believes that “life produces too much” and pruning is a natural and necessary process to reduce the “unwanted or superfluous”.

This metaphor resonates with me, not only because of my philosophy of minimalism. I also see it in action when I go for walk through the vineyards at Groot Constantia wine estate most Sunday mornings.

I’ve also seen how non-profit organizations and social enterprises which have grown very rapidly and expanded their services, have ended up losing their focus and efficiency. They’ve then needed to consolidate and get back to basics.

For example, I’ve recently been working with a community trust that owns shares in a mining company. While commodity prices were high, it rapidly expanded its operations and was able to tolerate certain inefficiencies. Now that commodity prices (and therefore its dividends) have decreased, it has needed to go back to basics and make some necessary endings, including creating a flatter organizational structure, focusing on community development and diversifying its income streams.

Endings because of changing circumstances

The second reason to make an ending is because circumstances have changed. For the organizations I work with this has primarily taken the form of a shift in the market, a loss of a key client, the entry of a competitor or new technology, or the introduction of a policy. Organizations that have tried to ignore these changes have become much weaker. Some have even needed to shut their doors.

Here’s an example that sticks in my mind. I remember working with a non-profit organization that helped health districts to set up Tuberculosis treatment programmes. When the Department of Health decided to reduce its donations to non-profit organizations and rather follow a formal procurement process, the market became more competitive. Businesses even starting picking up work that traditionally belonged to non-profit organizations. This organization failed to recognize the shift and learn a new way of operating. After complaining and sending delegations to the department to appeal for its “old funding”, it sadly shut its doors.

As Dr Cloud said, “when pruning does not occur, the unwanted or worse will occur”. In other words, if an ending is required in your organization, then you better make it now before it is too late.

How to make an ending

The book goes into detail about how to make an ending in our organizations or personal lives. Here are some points that stood out after recently rereading the book.

The first was that any decision to make an ending must be guided by a sense of purpose, a desired outcome. Dr Cloud says, “Don’t just cut back and think you have pruned. Pruning is strategic. It is directional and forward looking.” We should approach endings with “the end in mind”.

In other words, when helping an organization to restructure (or rethink its strategy), I must help them to develop an extremely clear vision of what they would look and operate in the future. This vision will need to be attractive and compelling. Any conversations about the endings we need to make now, must be must be understood in terms of our future vision.

Dr Cloud also says that change requires a sense of urgency. Without this we are unlikely to make the endings that are necessary. He believes we must be motivated by both “the fear of the negative and the draw of the positive.”

As leaders we need to learn to convey what will happen to our organizations if we postpone a necessary ending, whether this be an outdated or unnecessary system, structure, strategy or programme. Just as we need to create a positive vision for the future, we need to communicate the predictable pain or loss that will occur should delay our action.

I also took note of the importance of creating structure to support the endings. This could be setting up a workplan with milestones, or contracting external support, or formally communicating the ending that is required.

Finally, I learned the importance of “integrating care and truth inside ourselves”. In the context of the restructures I’m working on, I took this to mean caring for the people affected by the process but at the same time accepting and openly communicating the need to end something. It goes without saying that we should make endings with fairness and integrity.

What makes endings difficult?

If endings were simple we would all be much further along in our lives. While some endings may be very difficult for us to make, it is also a skill which we can practice and become better at.

Here are the five habits which Dr Cloud says prevent us from making endings, with some of my own comments alongside:

  • “Having an abnormally high pain threshold” – being able to deny or live with the pain that the current circumstance is creating for our organizations and ourselves.
  • “Covering for others” – taking too much responsibility for the thoughts, behaviours and well-being of others.
  • “Believing that ending it means I have failed” – assuming that the need for an ending is an admission that we have failed or underperformed, regardless of how external circumstances may have required the ending.
  • “Misunderstood loyalty” – being loyal to someone or an organization, when its clearly time to move on and make a change.
  • “Co-dependent mapping” – taking caring too far and to the extent that it undermines the person you are trying to help and creates an unhealthy level of dependency.

Importance of giving up false hope

Reading the book taught me how insidious “false hope” can be. I’m not talking about the legitimate hope that is based on evidence, but misplaced hope or wishful thinking.

I’ve worked with several organizations that have experienced drastic changes in their strategic context. Two examples spring to mind. The first organization was faced with a significant and stable British donor that changed its policy and withdrew from Southern Africa. The second organization lost a long-term client that had provided a significant chunk of its income.

At one point, they were all very hopeful that these circumstances would not actually come to pass – that exceptions would be made, or that other sources of income would rapidly emerge to take their place.

Both organizations were faced with the question of whether their hopes were justified, or whether it was “false hope”. Initially they experienced a state of organizational paralysis, where they may have missed some opportunities to reduce costs and diversify their income. Eventually they could no longer deny their current reality, and they started to make the necessary endings and move forward.

Dr Cloud highlights how “false hope” is one of the big reasons why organizations (and people) don’t want to make the ending that they intuitively know is required.

Some phrases stuck in my mind, and I thought I’d just list them here:

  • “Hope is not strategy.”
  • “Sometimes, the best thing a leader can do is to give up hope in what they are currently trying.”
  • “It is imperative that we give up hope if our hope is not hope at all but just an empty wish.”
  • “In the absence of real, objective reasons to think that more time is going to help, it probably is time for some sort of necessary ending.”
  • “What reason, other than the fact that I want it to work, do I have for believing that tomorrow is going to be different from today?”

These are the types of questions that leaders must contemplate if they are every faced with such circumstances.

Conclusion

All leaders need to learn how to make necessary endings in their organizations, whether these endings are required because an organization has grown rapidly, or whether its strategic circumstances have shifted. Dr Cloud said that we should strive to “make endings a normal occurrence and a normal part of business and life, instead of seeing it as a problem”.

The ability to make necessary endings will create space for an organization to focus its energies towards fulfilling its purpose and achieving its ambition. I believe it is a competitive advantage that social enterprises and non-profit organizations need to cultivate.

The wise know when an ending is required. They know how to make the appropriate ending so that something new and stronger can emerge.

All good times come to an end, but this does not mean that new good times are not ahead.

Thanks to Dr Cloud for writing this book, and to Philip Anastasiadis for his contributions to this article.

Cultivating strategic clarity.

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