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Apr 1, 2019

When is it time to quit?

Some people believe one should never quit, and try until one succeeds. That is a very stupid belief, because it leads people to waste their time, treasure, and efforts on non-productive things. Read or listen to this old Freakonomics podcast. However, when one deals with a whole organization, and its resources, such a belief borders on negligence. Every initiative, every project we have takes away resources from other possible projects and initiatives. In leadership, there should be no place for stubbornness, only place for cold and rational cost-benefit analysis.

It is very difficult to know when to quit, even with the coldest and most rational analysis. On Saturday, we held the 25th annual multicultural education conference – a very successful events with perhaps 900 attendees. However, when it started 25 years ago, I am sure it was a much humbler affair. People before us kept working at it, building and improving, and we are thankful for that. Some persistence is definitely warranted. In another example, we tried the competition for innovations in education for two years. The event was a lot of fun and definitely useful for those who participated. Nevertheless, we were not able to generate much publicity, or attract decent audience for the event. So we decided to quit, and focus on other things. I am still wondering if it was the right decisions, and perhaps we could build another good institution with more persistence.

In many cases, making the call is very difficult. How many years do you try to save a program that does not attract students anymore? You try to revise it, to provide more recruitment support. What if it still struggles? How many years can you afford to subsidize it at the expense of other programs? Remember, there is no exact science to this, no way to measure potential demand accurately. We tried the alumni reconnection events twice. Both times the events went just great, but attendance was underwhelming. At which point does the learning curve ends, and foolish stubbornness begins? Three years? Five? I am convinced we need to try the alumni events at least once or twice, for we are still learning important lessons. Ask me why am I so convinced, and I cannot provide a very rational explanation.

The best projects are those that die before starting. For example, we considered creating a development board in addition to our existing advisory board. We had several meetings and discussions, involving people serving on successful and less than successful development boards, and concluded it is not likely to work for us. We simply do not have a champion for that, and could not identify one. I am glad we quit quickly, before wasting a lot of time and effort. Quitting fast is sometimes the best strategy.

Sometimes an idea behind a project is so powerful that people follow it with an unbelievable persistence despite the abundance of evidence that it does no work. I have learned to appreciate the human propensity to keep doing the same thing while hoping to achieve a different result. We all need to check for that tendency. Just because we sunk a lot of time and energy into some idea, the idea is not automatically meritorious. There is a time to quit and stop throwing good money after bad.

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