Don’t be busy. Get things done. There’s a difference.

“Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway

How many times in my life have I found myself hurrying and scurrying to “DO ALL THE THINGS!” when in fact all I’ve really managed to do is whip myself into a frenzy of stress and confusion? Or how about the times where all my primary responsibilities have been dealt with, but here comes the boss so it’s time to “look busy.”

The trap is an easy one to slip into. More activity must = more output, right? Well, maybe…

The truth of the matter is that without a plan, we can spin in circles all day long without ever producing the progress we’re so desperately chasing. It’s an easy thing to fall into; I struggle with it myself. Doing a little bit of everything leaves us with a whole lot of nothing, including time and satisfaction.

My typical work week at the moment consists of planning and implementing social media, writing (hopefully) compelling marketing material, blogging, going to networking events, following up with contacts, staying up to date with the latest market trends, reading for leisure and development, and leaving enough time for the unexpected when someone reaches out to start a conversation or I land a client and have actual onsite consulting to attend to. So I come in to my lovely little co-working office each day and start doing everything I possibly can to keep all those plates spinning like an acrobat in the Chinese circus. Five minutes here researching keywords and hashtags, then a few minutes there hacking out a couple paragraphs for a new article, then checking email, then back to research, then “oh yeah, I have to email that woman from the business luncheon the other day!” and then… wait. What was I just doing?

The outcome? I feel frantic and busy nearly all the time, I’m constantly worried that I’m overlooking something, and I can’t measure or predict the results of my actions. Sounds great, right?

When I was 20, I packed my bags and headed off to film school. I was enrolled and ready to go, couldn’t wait to show up and grab a camera and start making my dreams come true while saving the world from a never-ending stream of lousy, boring movies. The big surprise came when class started. We were told that we wouldn’t even turn a camera on for at least three months. The first half of the project would be spent in pre-production, as if it were a real film. As we went on, I learned that the pre-production process takes up more time than actually shooting a film, and is far more detailed than I ever imagined. It’s not just about deciding on the story and shouting “lights, camera, action!” Every aspect of the shoot is planned in advance, so that by the time the cameras start rolling it’s mostly about execution. The crew doesn’t just show up on Monday and say “ok, let’s make a movie!” They show up on Monday to shoot the scenes that were planned for Monday. Then on Tuesday, they do the work of Tuesday, and so on. Everything is planned in advance and drawn out, every action has been thought through and refined to make the best use of time and resources

So when it comes to work habits, why not take the Hollywood approach? Would I rather have a poorly-planned, slapped together B-movie or a well crafted blockbuster? Do I want to go straight to video or break records in the box office?

The hardest discipline to develop is often that of sitting still and planning our actions before we take flight. When I take the time to plan my week, or even my day, in advance, I find that I get more done and I feel better doing it. I do Monday’s tasks on Monday, and leave the rest for its own time. I’m able to take the time I need to plan and implement each aspect of my business without the mental gridlock of everything needing to happen all at once. And I gain more of a sense of accomplishment as each task is completed and I’m able to move on.

That may be an overly simplified analogy, but the fundamental truth is the same – to be truly productive, the answer lies in planning, priorities and strategy. If I work for myself, I need a strategy to keep things organized and consistent. If I work for someone else it can be a bit trickier depending on the requirements of my job but I can still use a strategic approach to structure my time in the most effective and rewarding way. And if I get everything done and the boss walks up to my desk to find me without an active project? Maybe my strategic system is so good that I can show them how it works and score some points for workplace innovation in the meantime.

Don’t let your culture be an accident.

Look, it’s not rocket science. If you need me to convince you that having clearly defined values is an important part of being a successful business then we’re already off to a rough start.
The debate isn’t about whether values matter, or whether you need a culture to survive. Sure, you could likely get by without paying specific attention to these things for a period of time. But given the rapid shift in the workforce as millennial now make up the largest segment of the working population, and buyer behavior that’s changing faster than ever before as a result of new technology, you absolutely need a cultural strategy if you hope to survive and thrive in the long run of today’s competitive landscape.
Your company has values and culture, whether or not you’ve taken the time to formally engage with them. The enacted values show up in the way things get happen in your business. Do you have a command and control environment where people have become dependent on a top-down sense of direction and approval? Are your players bound by directive to follow the letter of the law and leave the thinking to the top brass? If so, then maybe your company values obedience, or perhaps you as a leader value strength, dominance, or even fear. Do your teams struggle with deadlines and accomplishment, working in an environment of overly permissive autonomy that leaves them acting confused and rudderless most of the time? Sounds like maybe your enacted values are independence, unaccountability and conflict-avoidance.
These probably don’t sound like the warm, fluffy ideals that we generally associate with “vision statements” or the cute little corporate recruiting video on your website. And they’re probably not the strong, results-oriented ideas you hold about yourself or how you want your organization to behave. But the fact is, if no one is taking the time to craft and implement your desired values, then they are going to be defined purely by the side-effects of your daily practices. Sounds like a bummer, right? But wait – there’s more. The bigger trap is when companies do take the time and money to spell out their ideas and ideals, talk them up at staff meetings, emblazon them on the walls, boast about them in the corporate newsletter… but never actually do anything to make them true for the people who do the work day in and day out. And if you’re thinking that it shouldn’t matter what the grunts in the trenches think as long as you’re able to maximize production and crank out products or services to your clients, you’ve got another thing coming. If your teams can feel the gap between what you preach and what you practice, then you can bet that it will show up in your client relationships as well.
As with anything that has a lot of buzz and “sounds like something we should really take care of around here,” there can be a tendency to look at values and culture as boxes to be checked. Let’s just workshop it and move on, figure out what our words are so we can get back to business. The problem with this line of thinking is that in some cases it can be more dangerous to pay lip service to values-based culture than to do nothing at all. Take for instance the current situation over at Wells Fargo – thousands of employees fired, millions of dollars in fines, and untold reputational damage because the claimed values of “trust” and “ethics” were undermined by internal pressures to live up to the operational values of greed and high-pressure sales targets.
External values: trust, integrity
Internal values: hit your numbers, no matter what it takes!
The point is that you can’t just slap a few words in a Powerpoint deck and call it a day when it comes to culture and values. Neither can you purely dictate them from the top down. You can define the values that you hope to embody, but culture is collaborative in nature. Leveraged effectively, it is a guidepost by which to navigate and it represents the most effective fusion of your aspirations for the company with the best qualities of your talented people. Because in case you weren’t aware, your people have values too, and they will usually look to first and those of the company second. This is particularly true of millennials.
deloitte millennial values
*Deloitte 2016 Millennial Survey
Culture will inform the types of decisions that get made in your business, and the level of engagement you get from your staff. And for better or worse, if there’s a problem with the culture inside the office, it’s going to reveal itself to the client in one form or another over time. So the real question isn’t “why do I need to worry about the soft stuff like culture and values,” it’s “how much longer can you afford to wait before you develop a cultural strategy?”

A discussion series on mindset and methodology for strategic organizational culture; Pt.1 – What’s your problem?

The problem with problems is that we often don’t start working on them until it’s too late.

This is especially true of organizational culture. By the time an issue becomes big enough to demand attention and real effort, the symptoms have usually been coursing unchecked through the system and wreaking havoc for quite a while. It’s not that we’re negligent and irresponsible (I mean, we might be, but diligent, attentive people have problems too.) It generally has more to do with our capacity for strategic thinking and the efforts we invest in that process. We may be good at solving problems, we’re just not so great at preventing them.

Some problems are obvious and the solutions easy to recognize. Others may be more subtle, hidden within subsystems that generate indirect symptoms. In operations we can easily see when a conveyor belt isn’t moving, a door is jammed or a process is breaking down and causing waste or inefficiency. With culture, we have to rely on a deeper level of insight and awareness in order to get to the true cause. What may initially seem like marketplace or management issues such as losing a contract or declining productivity more likely have their roots in unexamined culture.

This isn’t exactly breaking news; it seems like culture is the hot topic everywhere you turn these days. So much so that 82% of respondents to Deloitte’s 2016 Human Capital Trends report consider culture to be a potential competitive advantage. But when it comes to culture, most organizations stumble along in the status quo until something happens rather than seek improvement before its collapse. The reason? Sadly, the answer often comes down to the fact that we just don’t know what to do about it.

In the same survey, fewer than 28% of surveyed executives and HR leaders believe that they truly understand their own culture, and 19% believe that they have the right culture in place.

Take a minute to think about that. 82% believe culture is a key to success. Only 28% understand their culture and only 19% think they’re getting it right.

So we agree that culture is important, and we don’t think we’ve mastered it. But if we don’t understand it, how can we hope to change it?

Social psychologist and organizational theorist Kurt Lewin observed that “to break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir up.” Similarly, noted psychologist Carl Jung commented in his work with the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous that “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements” were critical in propelling alcoholics to experience an internal transformation capable of sustaining them through the stages of change required to achieve permanent sobriety.

The practical wisdom of such claims shows itself in our organizations daily. In most cases, cultural change occurs only when driven by outside forces – a merger or acquisition, the exit or entrance of a notable leader or influential player, a corporate downsizing; something happens, and we react. Sometimes that something is mild, like a new person on a team with a fresh set of ideas that cause us to rethink the way we do things, and sometimes it’s more drastic like a loss of market share and the grim specter of imminent layoffs that causes us to scramble our resources and react out of self-preservation. Or maybe it’s the rising tide of Millennials in the workforce that we’re struggling to properly engage. Whatever the case, it takes a wake up call to get us moving and by that point we’re forced to address damage control and forward motion simultaneously.

The downside of all this is that if we wait until we’re in crisis to implement change we’re stuck in a reactive mode, and living, working and operating in a state of reaction sucks. It costs us momentum, morale, and often money. But what if we could bring about a level of self-awareness sufficient to prompt action in the absence of a crisis? What if we could, as Lewin suggests, bring about a stir up intentionally and with strategic forethought in order to avoid tragedy later on?

Before we dive into such depths of organizational psychology, let’s step back and look at a simpler example to illustrate how change occurs from a practical standpoint using a fairly universal metaphor: fire

If we haven’t encountered fire before, we may reach out and touch the flame out of curiosity. We get burned, it hurts, we pull our hand away. Cause, effect, reaction. But maybe we didn’t really get burned all that badly. Perhaps we’re so fascinated by the warmth and flickering light that after a while we try again. We reach out into the heat a second time only to be met with the same result. We maybe get singed a bit more harshly this time around and we give up our heroic notions of conquering the mysteries of the flame once and for all.

It all really comes down to a simple proposition: at what point do the negative consequences of dysfunctional behavior outweigh the effort and discomfort required to honestly identify the source of the problem and put a solution in place? Put simply – how bad does it have to get before we get honest and do something about it? The answer to that question typically boils down to a matter of pattern recognition, resource allocation and where we fall on the functional-pain spectrum.

  • Pattern recognition – can we see what’s really happening? Just because it hurt the first time, we weren’t convinced that it would always be that way. The second time around we learned our lesson: fire is always hot, and getting burned is no fun.
  • Resource allocation – what will it cost us to change? Do we have, or can we create, the capacity to stop reaching into the fire? Yes. We don’t need any special tools or additional personnel. In fact, it would take less energy to stop than it would to continue; the benefit seems obvious.
  • Functional vs. Painful – what are we willing to tolerate? Here’s where the decision really gets made. The first burn was just a quick, mild hit. It was a shock and there was discomfort, but it wasn’t catastrophic. It may have even felt like a challenge, increased our need to master the fire and claim victory over it. We could tolerate the pain (and the memory of the pain) and continue to investigate. The second burn told us that we couldn’t beat the heat. It may have felt a bit stronger on our already flame-kissed skin, and we were hurt and sick enough of these results to change our actions and avoid future pain.

Now we had a second memory that compounded our initial discomfort, the needed resources to change our behavior, and a couple of data points as evidence that the fire will burn us every time. From this we establish an enduring perception based on our experience and we opt to change our behavior.

If change were easy or comfortable, there wouldn’t be so many books, workshops, consultants, and resources dedicated to it. We’d simply change whenever we needed or wanted to and that would be that. But while it is rarely such a simple proposition, the solution needn’t be overly complex. The fire example presents an overly-simplified reduction of a change process, but it contains the key elements we need to begin an effective transformation effort. The first phase always requires objective observation and reflection. If we dive headfirst into action, we miss the entire point of strategic thinking. If we think without acting, we’re equally ineffective. Significant effort is required to initiate and sustain change, but if we’re prepared to spend a little time developing a strategy then the process can be our guide on the path from where we find ourselves to where we envision that we must go.

In the coming weeks we will continue this discussion to dive deeper into models and strategies for cultural transformation, but for now let’s simply familiarize ourselves with the concepts and begin to generate awareness for the work ahead. What are the patterns that you think you might find as you begin to analyze your organization? Where do you think you’ll meet with resistance, and where will the idea of cultural change be the most strongly supported? Take just a minute to write down your initial thoughts, while not getting too caught up in the details or expectations.

Questions for reflection:

* Pattern Recognition: What is my current practice for identifying problems as they develop? Do I generally acknowledge when an issue is developing or do I tend to avoid the early signs?

* Resource Allocation: What would I have to invest (time, effort, $) to address this situation differently? Can I afford to do so? Can I afford not to?

* Functional vs Painful: How do I define “pain” as relating to the culture of my organization? How might I measure this in order to understand what is tolerable and what is not?

Feel free to comment below with questions, thoughts or experiences that come to mind along the way!