Identifying Corporate Procrastination

Procrastination, or failure to act, is one of the biggest challenges in business. Regardless of whether you are CEO of a multinational corporation, MD of your own limited company or a solo entrepreneur, all businesses suffer from inertia or procrastination from time to time. Identifying Corporate Procrastination is the first step in overcoming it.

Sometimes procrastination can be as simple as overwhelm in an individual, which prevents them from seeing past the pile of paperwork on their desk or the unread mail in their in-box. At other times, this can be collective paralysis when the senior management team has too many voices with conflicting suggestions, which make it almost impossible to pick out the right message from the cacophony. Or it might be the inability of a large organization to alter course in response to a change in the business environment, because of excessive or constraining process or legislation, or an over-reliance on historical precedence.

Procrastination usually takes one of three forms:

  • Individual Overwhelm
  • Collective Paralysis
  • Titanic Obliviousness

Individual Overwhelm
In the first case nothing ever gets done, because there is no place to start. This is sometimes colloquially known as rabbit-in-the-headlight syndrome. The deadline is past, the opportunity is missed, or an entrepreneur’s business venture never sees the light of day. There are plenty of statistics about how many business start and then fail within one, two or five years, but no meaningful information about how many great ideas never get off the ground through procrastination. For a business coach or indeed another person taking an interest, individual overwhelm is quite easy to spot.

Collective Paralysis
The second case, Collective Paralysis, the inertia is procrastination in stealth mode. The subjects will be unaware that they have a problem. If it is the senior management team, they will no doubt be able to show evidence of movement or progress, with minutes evidencing the steps towards a decision, but still the net result is no actual movement. Sometimes this covert procrastination is covered up by excessive requests for further information, and an almost obsessive need to overcome all objections. This can quite often occur at team level, when too many people are talking but no-one is listening.

Titanic Obliviousness
In the third example, it is not always obvious that anything is out of place. The organization is progressing according to projections, all the numbers are looking good, there are no alarm bells ringing and the ship is steady underfoot. Unfortunately, the potential danger may be the iceberg somewhere ahead, so it is no use just looking at the internal gauges of progress. The need to change course rapidly requires mental agility, which may not be the strong suit of the crew that got you where you are today. One possible warning sign of this form of procrastination is that there is a lot of talent leaving the organization.

Procrastination Worst Case
The worst case scenario is a combination of all three forms of procrastination! An organization which is steaming along nicely and does not realize what lies ahead, a dysfunctional senior management team too busy talking up their own interests to respond to new ideas from outside, and a Captain or CEO who has spotted the obstacle ahead but does not know what to do, or has too much work, or just does not realize what is possible. Do you recognize that scenario?

Where To Get Help
If you are a solo entrepreneur starting a new business venture, or the multinational CEO, the last thing you want to focus on is failure. But if you address the common reasons for failure, you’ll be much less likely to fall victim to them yourself. That is the purpose of a mastermind group, and why quotes from some of the greats can often help.

  • One of my favorite quotes in business coaching is actually from Arthur C. Clarke: The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible. In other words imagine what might be possible, and try it.
  • Another quote which works for me is from Samuel Johnson – Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome. Allow sufficient time for the objectors and nay-sayers to have their moment, and then make up your own mind. Decide on the new course, commit yourself to your chosen direction by documenting your decision, and finally act upon that decision.
  • In case you fall into the trap of thinking that you still do not have enough information to make a decision, then heed the words of Albert Einstein: Imagination is more important than knowledge.

All businesses suffer from inertia or procrastination from time to time, but a good executive business coach can help us identify the problem and point us in the right direction. All we need then is a little imagination and the fortitude to decide, commit and then act.

The Seven Pitfalls of Business Failure And How to Avoid Them by Patricia Schaefer

The Nature of Motivation

As performance coaches, one of the fundamental questions that we sometimes get asked concerns the Nature of Motivation. At the risk of coining a catchphrase, There are two kinds of motivation in the world, toward and away from. More precisely, there are two motivational directions, and each has different properties and different results.

Nature of Motivation (Direction)
Motivation Direction is easily summarized as toward pleasure and away from pain. As living beings, we naturally avoid pain and discomfort unless there is a higher imperative at work. Similarly, if there are no competing environmental influences, then we will move towards comfort, pleasure, and reward. So how does that knowledge influence motivation and ultimately performance?

In NLP the choice of toward or away from depends on the employee, and their internal meta-programs. In management coaching, it is important to understand the relationship between the duration of the motivating stimulus, and the duration of the effect. In simple terms, which is more effective, the carrot compared to the stick? Which one produces the longer lasting effect?

Away Motivation
Away motivation can prompt an immediate reaction, such as the involuntary movement of ones hand away from a hot stove. However, once away from the direct stimulus, the effect is short lived. Once your hand leaves the vicinity of the heat source, there is no tendency to rush away to the gym and exercise for an hour, or paint the spare bedroom!

This can lead to cyclic behavior like so-called yo-yo dieting. We are overweight so we go on a diet. We lose some weight, so the motivation is reduced. We lose a bit more weight and are now cured, so we go off the diet. Our old comfort eating eating habits return and we put the weight back on again. Back comes the motivation to lose weight, and we are off round the circuit again!

Toward Motivation
Toward motivation on the other hand, may prompt only a slow reaction, but the effects can be much longer lasting. When a goal is clearly in mind, such as a the achievement of completing our first marathon, the incentive to start may be small. For some this may be too small to overcome our own internal inertia, sometimes known as procrastination. However, if the motivation is real, and we keep the vision in mind, then we can start training, at first a couple of miles a week, and build it up slowly. It may be raining, or we have had to work late, but the goal of completing the marathon will keep us on track.

Effective Motivation
There is an long running management debate about whether employees are best motivated by bonuses and rewards (theory Y) or by threats of punishment (theory X). Supporters of both theories can show that their cause has merit. Threats of punishment will often give a short lived result, such as a boost in performance, but may only work while the manager (for which read stimulus) is present, to reenforce the threats. Long term rewards can work if the workforce is moving in the right direction, but are useless if there is apathy or procrastination. But which motivation is the most effective?

When Motivation Goes Wrong
Setting performance targets is sometimes seen as a balance between carrot and stick, with the implicit or explicit threat of withholding a cash grant or bonus for poor performance. However, once people lose the belief that they might get the bonus, for whatever the reason, the motivation can quickly evaporate. This is because cash is often motivation away from poverty, or hunger, rather than the pure accumulation of wealth. It lacks a long term beneficial goal or strategic vision.

Worse still, targets can sometimes lead to undesirable result contrary to the interests of the target setters. Government frequently fall into this trap, but so to can businesses and financial institutions, encouraging staff to make decisions targeting short term personal gains at the expense of long term profitability. For examples of when motivation goes wrong, we need look no further than the crisis in the financial sector and the problem of sub-prime loans.

Motivation Objectives
Most management text will make reference to setting SMART objectives which means that the objective is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. However there is less guidance about the nature of the motivation behind the objectives. So how do we set objectives and motivate people to achieve them?

Take the example of Health and Safety. Every good manager knows that they have a responsibility for Health and Safety. Every manager committed to improving the well-being and productivity of their workforce would encourage their workers to read the organizational Health and Safety policy and all risk assessments which relate to their job. We can even set a SMART objective about reading all the relevant documents by a given time, and providing evidence back to management. But how do you motivate the workforce so that they want to do it?

Motivational Vision
There have been many great leaders who have made motivational speeches which have become milestones in history. A few examples are listed here, but there are many more, with the same thing in common:

  • “We shall fight them on the beaches” by Winston Churchill
  • “We choose to go to the Moon” by John F. Kennedy
  • “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr

They all provide a stirring vision which galvanized their audience into action, and in one way or another, changed the course of history.

It is often said that other people do not much care about what we want or need. Harsh, but sometimes true. However, if you inspire them with your vision, then it will become their vision too, and they will move in the direction of that goal; the result of toward motivation. All we need is a little away from motivation to overcome procrastination, and we are moving! It does not necessarily need the proverbial kick in the pants from us as a manager; any environmental stimulus will do. That takes us off in the direction of utilization, and the work of Milton Erickson, which is a subject for another day!

It Could Never Happen Could It?

Once upon a time in a mythical, mystical land, there was an organization that protected the public and did good works to enable people to recover when they lost their way, or fell on hard times, and so become productive members of society. They did their, often thankless, task on the stipend granted by the rulers of the land, largely for the benefit that it brought to society. Nobody in the organization grew rich, but society was a better place.

Because of local and geographical differences, the organization had grown up into local guilds with a strong association with the community. Some guild branches were large, in the cities, and some were very small in rural communities. But regardless of size, they all shared a common aim – to make society a better place.

However, the counters of beans in the royal counting house were bored, and needed something new to focus on. They looked about, and asked if this was the most efficient structure for the benevolent organization. The rulers of the land sought to improve things, consulted their trusted advisers, and decreed that some of the guilds should combine together into larger organizations, in order to make economies of scale.

The affected guilds protested and pointed out that the original arrangements had grown up as a result of local or geographical needs, and would be less efficient. But the will of the rulers was strong, and the amalgamations took place. Cost did indeed rise, but the guilds received no more monies from the counting house, in fact the stipend was reduced. As a result the guilds had to lay off some of the workers, and complete the good works with fewer people, and performance fell.

After much debate, the royal counting house identified that the problem with the amalgamations was that all of the guilds used different signaling and messaging systems, and some of these were incompatible with each other. Of course the different systems had grown up to meet the needs of the original guilds in delivering their good works to the local communities, so suited the way each guild had worked. The advisers to the rulers pointed out that a single system would be much more efficient and so save on the cost of people the guilds needed to deliver the good works.

The guilds protested when they learned of the cost of the new system, however, the rulers knew better, and caused all of the signaling and messaging systems on which the guilds relied to be given to a faceless corporation. Of course the faceless corporation had lawyers and accountants and directors and shareholders, all of whom required payment for their services, so inevitably the costs to the guilds rose. Once again the stipend was reduced by the counters of beans, and sadly the guilds had to lay off more workers, and performance again fell.

The rulers of the land were perplexed by the outcome and sought to identify the reason why the costs had risen, despite the words of the advisers. They concluded that the problem lay with the management of the individual guilds, and so determined that they needed a master guild to oversee them all and show them the way forward. The new master guild employed the very finest analysts and strategist to work on the efficiency problem, and reduce the cost of delivering the good works. They labored together in a magnificent palace near to the rulers of the land so that the rulers could see for themselves the work that was happening.

The analysts and strategist sent out books of rules to which every guild must adhere, and demanded that carrier pigeons be dispatched every month with details of how the guilds were implementing the new strategies. Unfortunately all this regulation increased the cost to the guilds delivering the good works, and the guilds protested, but to no avail.

Since the analysts and strategist in their magnificent palace cost a lot to maintain, the counters of beans in the royal counting house were appalled at the escalating bill for delivering the good works, and lamented the fall in performance. They demanded that something be done to rectify the situation immediately, and proposed that groups of guilds be formed together, based on regional and geographical location. Each guild region would have an overseer who would commission the good works, and withhold payment from any guild that fell short of performance targets. Once again the guilds protested that it was becoming impossible to deliver the good works with all the rules and layers of bureaucracy, but the rulers of the land acted on the words of the advisers of the counters of beans, and appointed the overseers.

In order to ensure that they understood all of the challenges faced by the guilds in doing the good works, the overseers requested that their guilds dispatched carrier pigeons to the regional palace every week. The overseers each kept a staff of administrators and under-managers to process the returns, and ensure that no guild unfairly had their stipend withheld. However the regional palaces, overseers, administrators and under-managers all increased the cost to the royal counting house.

As the information demands of the master guild had not reduced since the implementation of the overseer, soon the guilds were swamped with carrier pigeons for each of the different bodies. Each guild had to divert essential resources from delivering good works into maintaining and dispatching the pigeons, and each had a sizable loft and systems for ensuring efficient dispatch of the messages. Unfortunately the overheads of feeding and housing all the pigeons was costing the guilds dearly, and to make matters worse, performance was still falling.

More and more initiatives were proposed and implemented by the rulers, all without success.

  • The maintenance and cleaning of the pigeon lofts across the land was granted to another faceless corporation, but performance fell and costs increased.
  • Standards were documented by the scribes and applied to every guild across the land, but still costs increased.
  • A proposal was circulated that all the pigeon lofts were to be amalgamated into a single super loft, implemented by one of the faceless corporations, even though the guilds protested that pigeon technology was outdated. The proposal went ahead, but the idea fell down as each guild still needed it’s own loft, and of course costs spiraled.

The counters of beans were in despair, and the rulers of the land squirmed uncomfortably. Something had to change!

At last, the rulers of the land ordered an investigation into the situation, and demanded a solution to the problem of the rising cost of performing the good works. The sun rose and set many times while the seers and advisers proposed and counter-proposed, argued and debated. The only thing that hadn’t been changed was the guilds themselves. They must be the cause of the problem, but how could the good works be delivered without the guilds? The only solution would be to outsource all the good works to one of the many faceless corporations which showed such expertise in delivering magnificent contracts!

Just then, one of the advisers pointed out that the faceless corporations were there to make a profit, so no-one would bid for the contract because of all the bureaucracy, standards, constraints, rules and regulations. On this there was general agreement, so the rulers of the land made a series of proclamations

  • They disbanded the regional overseers
  • They relaxed the rules which prevented the people delivering the good works from using their judgement
  • They removed the requirement for the faceless corporation to dispatch all the pigeons
  • They removed any regulation or standard which would increase the cost for the faceless organization, and so dissuade them from taking the contract
  • They wrapped the contract in all sorts of sweeteners and incentives,

Most importantly, they made it difficult for the guilds to operate on a commercial basis by insisting that they continue to use the obsolete messaging system, dependent on the pigeon lofts.

The night that the magnificent contract was awarded to the faceless corporation, the counting house resounded to joyous singing. The rulers of the land were relieved that they had divested themselves of the problem of delivering the good works to the diverse people in the cities, towns and hamlets. They grasped and shook the hands of the lawyers and and advisers, who had worked so hard to make it all possible. Merriment was unrestrained, until at last everyone retired to sleep, happy and exhausted.

The next morning, all the representatives of the the faceless corporations, who had been acting as advisers to the rulers of the land, slipped silently back to their employers, their work complete. Let the carnage begin.

This is just a metaphor, a story. There are no people, genders, institutions or organizations identified here. Any conclusions you may draw are your own. It is not real, and it could not happen.

Or could it?

A Motivated Person Digs a Hole

I am often asked about the nature of motivation, and whether it is an internal or external phenomenon. In other words is motivate something you do to someone else, or is it something you do by yourself. The answer, of course, is that it depends!

Some people are entirely internally motivated, and need no other impetus to get them going. They are often known as self-starters, and will stand out as having get-up-and-go or some other phrase which indicates internal energy. They are also often can-do people who need little convincing about the merits of a project before they are contributing ideas of their own. If you give a self motivated person a spade and tell them where you need a hole, you had better tell them how deep you want it, or you may find you need to back-fill later!

On the other hand some people seem to be externally motivated, and may appear at first glance to need considerable external management in order to get them going. That does not mean that they are lazy, or in some way less than the self-starter, it is just that they will need a better business case in order to start work. They will also probably need more information about the size of the hole needed so that they can deliver what is required. This is really less about motivation and more about understanding the task in hand.

In practice, people are combination of types, and the ratio may even vary from hour to hour depending on their interest in the subject. Many people will recognize an individual who is keen to get out and polish the car on a Sunday, but less motivated to polish the ornaments on the mantle. Some may even recognize themselves!

To some managers, motivation is something you do to others in order to climb the ladder of success. It almost goes without saying that there is an assumption that the recipient requires the motivation, otherwise why would you even bother to do it. If you can motivate someone, then of course you should. Well no, perhaps not. What is the effect of applying your own model of motivation on an already internally motivation person? What is the cost of providing motivation, in the form of supervision, is that necessary, required, or possibly even counter productive?

A Motivated Person Digs a Hole
A story I sometimes tell, concerns a motivated person who digs holes for a living. As a self-starter, they enjoy digging holes, and work to their maximum sustainable capacity and can do no more. Their unit of productivity in this ideal scenario is one, that is, one person digs one hole in one unit of time, for the purpose of this story a working day. To further simplify things our digger is paid $1.00 per day, which makes the unit cost of a hole $1.00. If you need the motivated person to dig ten holes, you know it will take ten days, and cost you $10.00

Anyway, on a project that needs one hundred holes, the project manager wants the job done more quickly than one person can manage. The motivated digger brings along nine motivated friends, who manage to dig the first ten holes in one day. This costs the project $10.00. However, the project manager thinks it could be done better.

On the next day the project manager promotes the motivated digger to supervisor, with a promise of a bonus for increased productivity, and sets the party to work. The motivated digger uses all their skills, but the day’s output is only nine holes. The project manager demotes the previously motivated digger without paying the bonus, and promotes one of the other diggers. The project manager is not happy that the unit cost per hole has risen to $1.11.

The next day the previously motivated digger sets to work with the eight motivated diggers and newly promoted supervisor. To be honest the heart of the previously motivated digger really is not on the job. As a result the previously motivated digger only produces 90% of their usual day’s total, and the group’s collective output falls to 8.9 holes. The project manager is incensed because the unit cost per hole has risen to $1.12 and he reduces the new supervisor back to digger.

The third day the project manager appoints an external supervisor at a daily rate of $1.10, and sets the party to work. However, with two demotivated diggers, despite the supervisor’s best effort, the total output is only 9.8 holes. Although better productivity than the previous day, the unit costs have risen to $1.26, and the project manager is incandescent.

As a last resort, the project manager instructs the supervisor to personally motivate every digger for the next day’s work. Despite reservations, the external supervisor personally motivates every digger, and spends the whole day visiting each digger and exhorting them to greater effort, but with mixed results. Half of the diggers seemed to be motivated, and responded well to the additional exhortations, and gave 100% for the whole day. Half of the diggers were self-starters who resented the additional pressure and interruption from the supervisor, so only produced 90% of their usual day’s total. Despite the addition motivation, there were only nine and a half holes in total for the day. The unit costs are still too high at $1.17, so next day the project manager fired the external supervisor.

Now in despair, the project manager sat down and began to doubt that the project could ever be completed on time and within budget. Just at that moment a wise old sage happened along the road and asked the project manager what had happened. After a few moments of explanation, the wise old sage nodded and asked the project manager for permission to fix the problem, which the project manager quickly gave.

Picking up a spade from the nearby pile of tools, the wise old sage handed it to the project manager, with the instruction to begin digging in the nearest hole, and whatever the temptation, not to stop digging until the project was complete. Bemused, the project manager wanted to question the instruction, but because of the reputation of the wise old sage, reluctantly complied. The wise old sage whispered something while passing the diggers who had been gathered awaiting instructions, and then wandered off down the road. Even more bewildered, the project manager watched as the diggers started work unsupervised.

Unused to the hard physical work, the project manager struggled with the spade, which seemed to have a mind of its own. Occasionally the project manager noticed that one or other of the diggers seemed to be watching, but remembering the words of the sage, made no comment. At the end of the day the project manager had only completed half of the first hole, however the ten other diggers had completed a hole each, so the day’s total was 10.5 holes.

The next day the project manager set to work with the spade and completed the hole started the sixth day, and then got started on the next one. The project manager again noticed that one or other of the diggers seemed to be leaning briefly on the spade, watching, but as they mostly seemed to be digging, let it pass without comment. By the end of the day, the ten other diggers had again each completed a hole, the day’s total was 10.6 holes.

The next day, the eighth, the project manager almost completed the hole started the previous day, and the diggers had again each completed a hole, despite the occasional glances, so the day’s total was 10.8 holes.

The ninth day, the project manager completed 90% of a hole, and the diggers had again each completed a hole, so the day’s total was 10.9 holes.

On the tenth day, the project manager dug a complete hole as did the diggers, so the day’s total was eleven. Amazed the project manager checked, and all the holes for the project had been completed. The project was finished on time, so the manager thanked the diggers profusely, paid them what was due and waved them goodbye.

As the diggers went on their way, the project manager noticed the wise old sage coming back up the road. Greeting the sage warmly the project manager asked for an explanation of what had happened to motivate the diggers to work unsupervised.

The sage replied that there are three things to know about motivation:

  1. You can’t motivate people, they have to motivate and empower themselves.
  2. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you’re enthusiastic about the job you are doing, it’s much easier for others to be, too. Different people are motivated by different things, but leading by example usually works well, as it shows how keen you are to get the job done.
  3. People are more inspired by your vision than by you telling them what to do

The project manager was starting to understand what had happened, and how the job had been finished in spite if the earlier interference, rather than because of it. As the wise old sage started to walk away, the project manager asked what had been said to the other diggers in passing to keep them working so well.

“Simple!” replied the sage, “I told them that you were so keen to finish the hundred holes that you might do yourself a mischief, so I asked them to keep an eye on you!”