If something doesn’t work

One sentence can rock your world. “Tonight’s winning numbers are…” “Step out of your car and blow into the device.”*

For me it was:

If something isn’t working, stop doing it.**

Why should something so simple hit so hard? It is a statement that is stunning not for the fact that it is blatantly true but for the fact that we usually do the complete opposite.

If something isn’t producing the results we expect, the default in most organisations is to do more of it. One last push, double down, it’s starved of resources, give it some proper attention.

Now, I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of sticking to things, not chopping and changing. And I stand by this. If something is working, keep doing it. Don’t swap it for the latest fad. But if something isn’t working, you need a good reason to keep at it, let alone throw more resources at it.

By the way, the opposite – ‘if something is working, do more’ – is not necessarily true. See the article on the idea of the minimum effective dose.

Under what circumstances might you keep doing something that doesn’t work? If you started small, and it is producing some results but not enough, then there’s an argument for scaling up (although scaling up a product that doesn’t cover its variable costs will just produce bigger losses). If you made a mistake and can correct that mistake, then there’s an argument for trying again (although if you keep making mistakes, that’s a sign of something else). If you are fighting an external opponent and the barriers are created by ‘enemy action’ you might be able to overcome them. If your activity involves searching for something (invention, discovery), it may take time to cover the terrain; you fail at finding something right up until you find it.

But otherwise, be sceptical about your motives for persisting with something that doesn’t work. The psychological drivers behind this are well documented – the sunk cost fallacy, for example. It is often no more complicated than pride. And it is sometimes the vested interests that have grown up around the routines of the failed activity.

Many things don’t work inside our organisations. They do not produce the results we claim, or hope for. We fondly believe that one last push, some new insight, better training for managers, a major new initiative, even just more time, will somehow crack it. They probably won’t. Maybe you can replace it with something more effective, but we are all busy enough. As a first step, just stop. Let go of your pride, cancel the project and liberate those resources. The relief will be palpable.


* I have not been the recipient of either of these sentences.

** Although it is a powerful thought, I have not been able to re-discover the source. It is not my own. I think I heard it on a Tim Ferris podcast, but hours of (otherwise pleasurable) listening have not brought it back to light. If you know the reference, please drop me a line, as I would like to credit it properly.

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