Over a decade ago, authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton published a splendid book about organizational procrastination entitled “The Knowing Doing Gap”. Although some of its corporate examples are a little dated, its central message about the difference between organizations who simply talk about the things they know and those who turn knowledge into action is still spot on.
I have touched on the topic of procrastination in some of my previous articles , primarily to urge managers to act rather than dither. I have pointed out that there is no such thing as a decision until you have acted upon it and then evaluated the results. In this article, however, I want to look at the pervasive and negative organizational consequences of chronic management procrastination (CMP) when it come to putting ideas and intentions into action. These consequences should scare any thinking manager and the best managers in my experience seek to avoid them at all costs.
So, if your organization is always discussing and studying things but not acting, if decisions are forever being announced but nothing ever seems to happen or change, or if your proverbial shelves overflow with excellent proposals that never saw the light of day, this article is for you.
CMP stifles creativity and innovation. Being creative and pushing the envelope means trying new things, taking some chances and risks, making some mistakes, then fixing what doesn’t work and pushing forward. It is a dynamic process that energizes the best and brightest in your workforce. Studying new ideas to death, looking for reasons not to act — there always are some if you look hard enough — or trying a single pilot in an obscure part of your organization eventually extinguishes the very spirit capable of achieving new breakthroughs and excellence in all you do.
CMP represents a significant threat to your organization’s competitiveness regardless of your business or organizational mission. Especially in highly competitive markets, industries, businesses, and fields of endeavor where innovative and imaginative ideas and creative solutions are the keys to customer or consumer commitment and loyalty, those who consistently fail to act risk being left behind.
CMP eventually drives talent out of an organization. Clever recruiting may get some of the best and brightest through your doors initially. But if becoming a player on a winning team and being part of a dynamic, creative, and innovative environment is their aim, many of the best and brightest will eventually seek greener pastures if constantly confronted with management that seems generally reticent to act.
CMP wastes precious time. Hours, days, weeks spent in meetings, focus groups, and planning sessions organized to discuss new ideas, products, processes, and strategic initiatives that will never receive the green light most assuredly could be spent more productively. If you are not actually going to do something, why waste time discussing it.
CMP gradually becomes a defining characteristic of an organization’s culture and breeds cynicism and pessimism among the workforce. I have reminded managers on numerous occasions not to underestimate the intelligence of subordinates. It doesn’t take most subordinates long to figure out “how things really operate around here” and whether management generally follows through on announced intentions. You need not be a born cynic or pessimist to eventually become jaded when faced with a constant flow of ideas, promises, and intentions that will most likely never happen.
Finally, CMP can eventually render an organization’s entire management structure ineffectual, even laughable, in the eyes of a workforce. While procrastination may not have an inordinate influence on much of an organization’s daily routine, a workforce looks to its management team for future direction and a strategic vision that will maintain the organization’s competitiveness and dynamism — and their job security — in an ever-changing external environment. Chronically avoiding the hard decisions, a reticence to take risks, and an unwillingness to undertake initiatives widely recognized among subordinates as necessary, hardly inspires confidence among a workforce that their leaders can in fact lead.
There are always those moments when a wise manager chooses, for legitimate reasons, to postpone taking some action. But the underlying motivations that drive procrastination, although complex and varied, are not wholly rational, reality based, or in the best interest of an organization. While taking risks and attempting new things that may ultimately fail produces anxiety and some fear in all of us, the best managers learn to manage these emotions in the best interest of those they manage.