WARNING! Watch Out for Harmful Delays and Risky Inaction
Procrastinators believe that if they do nothing long enough, any bad situation will take care of itself. Or if it does not resolve itself, it will simply go away. Many even insist that procrastination is a form of work, explaining that they are letting their thinking percolate. With that point of view, they feel no concern about delay.
In most situations almost any direct action is better than no action. If nothing else, you’ll learn from what you try and then refocus in a more productive direction. In support of this view, Thomas Edison made thousands of unsuccessful attempts to invent a practical light bulb. Edison saw what he was doing as “learning” rather than “failing.” Clearly, his approach speeded up the process.
When fear is an element, that fear can create a disastrous procrastination stall. In the 1930s, a sudden wind swept a helium-filled airship aloft from its moorings. The rising ship carried away some of the rope crew as well. Most let go right away and suffered no worse than sprains. Others held on until they lost their grip. Each time a man let go, the dirigible leapt higher. Those who hesitated longest fell to their deaths.
DON’T THINK TOO LONG ABOUT THAT
Fear and Trembling in the Executive Washroom
Fear rules many business leaders and their fear comes in many guises. One of America’s most admired CEOs feared any negative publicity. As a result, he would only acquire smaller, privately held companies knowing that public scrutiny would be minimal.
Another CEO trembled at the thought of being fired. The CEO frequently fired his key lieutenants for nonperformance, hoping that the board of directors would be more dependent on him. As a result, no one wanted to rock the boat, and procrastination ruled every operation. When the company sold one of its businesses, profits soon rose under either the same management or new management burdened with less fear.
Similarly, when major layoffs occur, many survivors feel worse than those who lost their jobs. If they cannot find new jobs, these shell-shocked troops will do anything to please, including simply maintaining the status quo.
A different type of fear dogs those who aspire to be CEOs. Companies often pick two to five contenders and stage a two- or three-year “beauty” contest to see who will be the next leader. If your unit does well and no one else’s does, you get to be the big boss. As you can imagine, almost no one in that situation is going to try anything that might not work perfectly during the beauty contest.
It’s far easier to lay back and let others be innovative. But that’s the way to ruin, not to progress. One CEO took avoidance to an extreme. Presented with a list of all the issues that the company had known about for five years and had never been resolved, the CEO grabbed all the information and destroyed it. “This information is too important to get out,” he said. But the first step in resolving any problem is to get it out in the open where it can no longer be ignored.
Like the CEO who got rid of the list of issues, anxious executives often connect their fear to the wrong things. A company that had frequently failed with advanced technology products decided to pursue only low-technology products. That decision only made matters worse. In the meantime, many areas blossomed where the company had developed advanced technology products. The company had simply developed its products a little too far in advance of customer demand.
Talk It to Death
Some companies build monuments to procrastination with never-ending committees and lengthy studies by consultants. These actions give the appearance of doing something worthwhile. Employees relax and stop paying attention.
Organizational consultants frequently lengthen the delays by setting up a game of musical chairs. They recommend reworking the organization before addressing the old issues. It’s like telling those hanging onto the airship ropes to count to 200 before making a decision.
A Diversionary Tactic
Companies faced with seemingly insoluble problems will go out and buy new and bigger problems to draw attention away from the existing issues. AT&T is thought by some to have used this approach in acquiring NCR under the leadership of Bob Allen. NCR was later sold for a loss of $5 billion after costing NCR employees thousands of jobs. AT&T’s market share decline in long-distance telephone services continued.
Practice, Practice, Practice: Success Through Simulation
Wise companies assume that fear will freeze the unprepared into costly inaction. Is that what you want airline pilots to do when they hit terrible turbulence? Of course not. The solution: Simulate extreme conditions and allow employees to become accustomed to making timely decisions and taking action. For example, utility employees learn in a simulated nuclear plant by facing a potential core meltdown if they don’t act appropriately.
Listen, the Answers Doth Bark!
To make faster progress, track suggestions from the time they are made to the time of action. Some organizations go one step further and authorize employees to make improvements the employees suggest if no one objects within 30 days.
Do It Yourself
CEOs like to bring in consultants, in part, to blame unpopular or risky decisions on the outsiders. It is better to be forthright about what needs to be done and take any heat that develops it’s faster, too!
A Foolish Consistency Can Risk All
When Avon hired Hicks Waldron to be its CEO, the company was earning less than the dividend it was paying to shareholders. Still, Waldron promised publicly, “I’ll never cut the dividend!”
It soon became clear that declaration was a mistake. Waldron avoided digging in his heels and looked for a solution. He offered shareholders a chance to keep the current dividend for three years or to switch to a more attractive new share that would enjoy faster earnings growth. Everyone was happy with one or the other, and three years later dividends were down to what Avon could afford. By not letting himself be paralyzed by the fear of looking foolish, Waldron found his 2,000 percent solution to better reward shareholders.
When new CEO, Lou Gerstner, entered IBM, he found a company frozen in inaction. He set about changing that by personal example and by sharing a new value of taking timely, appropriate actions. Those who persisted in the old way soon found themselves looking for work elsewhere. The message was soon received and understood.
Answering these questions will help you identify where action should replace in-depth analysis:
1. When should the customer be considered right and receive immediate recognition and resolution?
2. What threats to safety require immediate action?
3. What competitive actions require immediate responses by using your best judgment?
4. When two people in different parts of the organization do not agree, when should one of them automatically prevail, when should an automatic rule prevail, and when would a coin flip suffice for the decision?
5. What problems should receive immediate action because they almost always get worse if ignored?
It’s Okay to Take a Chance on Action
Many delays occur because employees are afraid. They fear that mistakes will end their careers. To overcome the bias to play it safe, everyone must know when they should act. These questions will help you clarify your optimal direction:
1. What is the minimum time needed to make a significantly better decision?
2. Worst case, what can a delay cost you?
3. What deadlines are appropriate for taking action?
4. How can people be encouraged to overcome procrastination in routine situations?
Copyright 2007 Donald W. Mitchell, All Rights Reserved