“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.”
— Yogi Berra, American baseball manager.
“Human beings must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.” — Albert Einstein, German-American physicist.
Procrastination. Perfectionism. Waiting for more information. Fear in all its forms. There are dozens of reasons—probably hundreds—for staying safely within your comfort zone rather than stepping out into the dangerous, prickly world of change. Some may even seem logical. After all, you’re going to face change whether you like it or not; so why deliberately add even more to the agenda?
Well, there’s the old “stagnation is death” argument: If you don’t change, you can’t grow. But maybe you don’t care about growing, just surviving. If so, answer this question for me: is spending a career fighting rearguard actions as everyone else tries to run over you worth all the effort? Wouldn’t life be easier if you were the one pushing forward—or even better, running at the front of the pack, completely in the clear?
The Curse of Caution
Even ambitious people have a tendency to overthink things. But meditation quickly hits a point of diminishing returns. In the words of philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.”
Few people have had a more profound impact on American culture than Emerson. Born the son of a Unitarian minister, he began formal schooling at age nine in 1812 and entered Harvard University at age 14. That’s a pretty radical example of putting ambition into action. An abolitionist, he served as both school teacher and minister until after his wife’s death in 1831. In 1832, he began traveling extensively in Europe, meeting literary luminaries such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, before returning to Massachusetts and making a name for himself as a Transcendentalist essayist. He was a friend and mentor of Henry David Thoreau—who, like Emerson, was willing to take action on his personal beliefs, no matter the social consequences.
When it comes to the workplace team, action is crucial because ultimately, only results matter—as nice as it might be to believe otherwise. So if your people are dragging their feet, it’s time to shake it up a bit. As leader, it’s your responsibility to elicit results. While there’s no reason to be an ogre, your goal isn’t to be best friends with your team members and go out for beers after work. You do have to be polite and respectful, and you do have to get along. But you are the boss, so:
1. Forget about waiting for the right time. There is never a right time. There’s no time like the present! You can’t foretell the future, so don’t let others convince you to wait for “better” or “more acceptable” conditions for any required change.
2. Stop accepting excuses. If lack of training or equipment slows productivity, rectify the situation. If people still don’t produce, find out why. Do they spend too much time on the Internet? Are they bored? Have they gotten sideways with other team members? Correct the issues as you can.
3. Set strict deadlines and milestones. Make your goals clear, and set drop-dead dates for producing what you and your supervisors require.
4. Hone their skills. When it doesn’t interfere with productivity, send your team members to training, even for topics they might not need right now but will in the future. Always be looking 3 years out for the skills you’ll need to create the workplace of the future. Furthermore, urge them to invest in continuing education to increase their Personal Return on Investment (PROI). Many organizations will pay for education, as long as the employee keeps their grades up.
5. Help them structure their time. If a team member just can’t seem to get it together, you’ll need to intervene a bit more than usual on the scheduling. You can have low performers submit personal schedules for your approval and activity reports if you can’t see results. If nothing works, put that person on a corrective action plan.
6. Create an Action Plan. Draft a one-month or 90-day action plan for your team, delineating team and organization goals, and get their input. Outline exactly how you’re all going to go about reaching the milestones.
Face it: you’ll never get as much information as you’d like before you start on a project. You’ll never be able to account for all contingencies and details. You’ll almost always feel nervous, especially when embarking on something new. But don’t let any of that, or fear, or procrastination, or any other excuse keep your team from moving forward with their work. In some cases, other people depend on you and your team to get your work done so they can move forward. Even if they don’t, waiting will accomplish nothing.
Action cures fear—and ideas, no matter how wonderful, remain worthless until you take action. So once you have enough ducks in a row, get started and meet the challenge head on. You can take care of the details as they arise if you’ll just get going and keep moving forward.
What’s the balance for you between enough information and starting?