Friday, August 15, 2008

Analogy #199: Movement vs. Progress

When I was a child, I was fortunate to have teachers who tried to instill in me a sense of the big picture. There was this librarian who kept insisting that before starting to read a book, examine the entire book. See if it has a glossary or index in the back. See what else it has to offer. That way, reading the book will be more fulfilling and we’ll get more out of it.

I had a Social Studies teacher in high school who tried to instill these same principles. On the last day of school, this teacher gave us a final exam. The exam was huge! It was about the size of a small phone directory. There were hundreds and hundreds of questions to answer. Even worse, we only had an hour to complete the exam. There was no way that any human could get all those questions answered in an hour.

When the students saw the size of the exam, they started to panic. Not wishing to waste any of the precious time, most students just dove in and started answering the questions as fast as they could—in sequential order—starting with question #1.

After only a few minutes had passed, one student closed their test and handed it into the teacher. The student and the teacher both had big smiles on their face. At this point, I knew there was some kind of trick here.

As a result, I stopped racing through the questions and took the time to examine the entire test more fully. I noticed that on the last page, there was a special message. The message said that all we had to do was write a particular word on the top of our test and hand it in and we would get an “A” on the test.

Then I realized that the teacher had never said we had to answer all the questions. He just handed out the test. So I wrote the word on the top of my test and handed it in…with a smile.

The business world had a bias towards activity. “Looking good” means looking busy. When trying to hire people, job descriptions will often ask for people with “a bias towards action.” The kiss of death is to appear idle.

However, just because one looks busy does not mean that one is productive. The students taking that exam were extremely busy. They were rushing from question to question, trying to answer as many as possible. Unfortunately, it was an effort in futility.

Had they taken time to pause and reflect on the project before them, they would have seen that all they needed to do was write a single word on the front of the test. Instead, they were so busy “doing the work” that they ended up never finding out what the real work was supposed to be.

It is so easy to fall into this same trap in the business world. We get so caught up in racing to get work done that we never take the time to determine if it is the right work to be doing. Time is wasted. Effort is wasted. Money is wasted. And while we are so busily doing the wrong thing, competition can calmly do the right thing and get a huge advantage.

The principle here is that there is a big difference between activity and progress. Sure, all progress requires some activity, but not all activity leads to progress. In fact, too much of a bias to quick action can actually slow down or stop progress.

Sometimes, stopping the busyness and taking time to reflect and ponder can lead to your greatest progress.

Great strategic insights come from looking at the big picture and seeing something which others have missed. It’s hard to see the big picture when your head is down and busily focusing getting some mundane task completed quickly. And it’s hard to see what others have missed when you don’t take time to really sit back and look.

Howard Schultz got the original vision for Starbucks while relaxing at a cafĂ© in Europe and just watching the human interactions around him. I’ll bet the executives at Folgers and Maxwell House looked a whole lot busier on that same day. However, I suspect that Howard Schultz was a lot more productive that day.

It takes time to synthesize all of the various data inputs and create a point of view about how the world works and how you can find a winning position within it. And given how the world is continually changing, more time is needed to occasionally refresh that point of view. This cannot be done unless you step back from the busyness and ponder.

I was impressed when Gap stores decided this past spring to pull back a huge chunk of their advertising. The reason was because the stores were not ready with much of a compelling reason to shop there. Heavy doses of advertising would just have accelerated disappointment. Instead, the Gap sat back, kept its advertising relatively idle, and reinvented its merchandising approach. Now, with a renewed vision, the Gap is bringing back the advertising again.

This is so different from many companies which, in times of panic, just crank up the busyness in hopes that working harder and faster at what they’ve always done will make things better. Let’s remember that this is the same work which got the company into trouble in the first place. Doing it faster and more frantically won’t change the fact that it is still the wrong work. And while keeping busy doing the work, there is no time to consider how to change the strategy and figure out what would be better work.

A little time spent up-front pondering the big picture can save a lot of grief and wasted effort later on. More of the world is like that Social Studies test than one might think. Spending a little time up-front examining with the big picture may present a far easier solution to the problem (just writing a word on the front) than grinding out busyness the old fashioned way (answering all of the questions).

New solutions can be easier because:

1) It is uncontested territory…it’s almost like having a monopoly.

2) New solutions tend to have higher margins, and less competitive intensity…the path to profits is easier.

Unfortunately, the lure of busyness is difficult to resist. In tough times, there is fear of losing a job. Busy people appear more essential, more valuable…less likely to be laid off.

Also, there is a satisfaction which comes from accomplishing things (even if they are the wrong things). You can point to things you’ve done. You can check things off a list. It can actually be fun.

In the busyness of activity, you don’t have time to ponder all the things that could be wrong with the big picture. Ignorant to the long-term doom, you can be content with “Gettin’ ‘R’ Done.” By contrast, sitting back in a pondering mode can be scary work. It is unstructured…you never know when you are done…and it forces you to come to grips with some very big problems.

The siren call to action may sound great, but often times it must be resisted or your actions will cause your business to crash against the shores.

If you want to hit a target, you must aim before you shoot. Similarly, if you want your business to succeed, you must aim its direction before you act. When you watch someone aim their rifle, it doesn’t look like much activity is going on, but that aiming makes the productivity of the shooting activity so much better.

Not all activity is productive. In fact, much is unproductive and keeps you from thinking about what would be productive activity. Taking a pause before diving into the work may be the most productive thing you do.

I’ve watched many a hockey or soccer game where there is a lot of action, but not many goals. It’s exciting and fun to watch, but not very productive. Don’t let the fun and excitement blind you to the fact that the teams did not reach their goals.

In the same way, don’t let the excitement of doing deals, updating logos, doing brand extensions, and so on, blind you to the fact that in many cases this work will not get you to your goal. Studies show that most of these great-looking “activities” actually destroy shareholder value. Taking time up-front to sit back, ponder and get the big picture will increase your chances of avoiding the loser activities and doing the winning activities.

Remember: Success is not determined by how many things you do, but by how much value you add. If an activity destroys value, it was not only a waste of valuable time, but it negates any other effort which added value (a double destruction). Even doing nothing is better than destroying value.

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