Could the Zeigarnik Effect Be Sapping Your Energy?

I’ve always been fascinated with the expeditors in busy restaurants. When I worked in commercial kitchens 40 years ago, we called them wheel men. They stood at a wheel with clips on it. A server would clip the dining party’s order to the wheel on his or her side of the counter and spin it around so the wheel man could reach it. This individual would then order the food. When the dishes came up, they would be placed on the counter and the server would be called. Software has now replaced the wheel, of course. Instead, a machine spits out a ticket onto the counter. But the rest of the principle is the same.

If you take a step back, though, you’ll realize that the entire job consists of one incomplete task after another. The expeditor orders food and then puts that ticket in the back of his or her mind until the food comes up. At that point, it has to be recalled and assembled accurately, all within a minute or two. It can be overwhelming. I’ve been there. That said, I’ve watched seasoned expeditors manage as many as 15 orders at the same time during a dinner rush. Eventually, all the tasks are completed and everyone receives their food.

All of this takes us to the Zeigarnik Effect. Named after researcher Bluma Zeigarnik, the theory holds that an interrupted activity may be more readily recalled. As a result, people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. For positions such as expeditor and air traffic controller, the brain’s ability to do this is an advantage.

But most of us don’t run a kitchen or direct air traffic. As a result, the Zeigarnik Effect can sap our energy and focus. Why? Because the brain keeps reminding us of tasks we have not completed. This adds to the cognitive load we are already managing and depletes the blood glucose our brain needs to focus.

Imagine working on a project and continually being reminded of other little tasks that still need to be done. You may be living this every day. Most of us do. Every time the thought of one of these tasks is triggered by something in the environment, we waste some of the sugar energy we could have used for focusing on present activities. On a hectic day, with lots of these distractions, this can leave us exhausted, but without a sense of completion. Maddening isn’t it?

So how can you manage this effect and conserve your energy? The easiest thing to do is compartmentalize these tasks by recording them on a separate list. This could be something as easy as maintaining a pad and pen next to your focused work. When one of these distractions comes to mind, jot it down and then forget it. The brain perceives that as a signal of completion and will stop reminding you to do it. When you reach a point where you can complete the tasks on this list, take a few minutes and punch them out. I have been doing this for years and this one little practice measurably improves my productivity and focus.

This is not rocket science, but it’s how top ten thinkers are able to remain focused on important activities. How about you?

The Most Expensive Kind of Question Ever Asked

If you have ever supervised people, you have been on the receiving end of these questions. If you have ever been supervised, you have asked these kinds of questions. If you’ve had to answer these questions, it’s cost you time and focus, sometimes for hours every week. If you’ve asked these questions, you knew you were doing it, but it was so much easier than thinking.

What kind of questions? Lazy ones. They come in many forms. Some start out with, “Can you help me?” or maybe “I don’t know what to do.” Perhaps they end with, “I don’t want to make a mistake,” or “I looked it up on the Internet and there wasn’t any information.”

These questions can become the bane of a supervisor’s existence. Just when you have regained your concentration on the project at hand, someone leans in your door and says, “Got a second?” When you figure out that the question being asked should have been handled by the asker, your impulse might be to yell, “THINK FOR YOURSELF!” But then you conclude that it’s just easier to answer the question than dealing with the blank stare that comes with your demand for independent thinking. But that’s where you’re wrong!

There are three consequences to answering lazy questions: 1) Enablement – It is human nature to learn by observation. If employees observe you answering all their lazy questions, they will conclude that it is okay to keep asking.

2) Cost – Time is money and lazy questions drain your time and attention like nothing else. Answering ten lazy questions a day can run into thousands of dollars per month.

3) Turnover – Asking lazy questions demonstrates the lack of investment the person has in their job. If they don’t care enough to think, why would they care enough do good work or even stick around?

Now, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. The issue is what to do about it. In my experience, it comes down to the word “compel.” Compel is defined as having a powerful or irresistible effect. In other words, the person feels like they have no choice except to comply. Notice I used the word “feel.” There is an emotional element to this. You’re not forcing them to do anything. You are convincing them that it is in their best interest to think rather than take the easy way out.

A number of years ago, I was introduced to an educational technique called a “think-aloud.” Imagine a student approaching a teacher to ask for help on something he’s already been shown before. Rather than showing him a second or even third time, the teacher says, “Let’s think this through together. How should we begin?” Then the teacher waits for a response.

The student may be hesitant or even say, “I don’t know how to begin.” In response, the teacher says, “Suppose I was not here and you had to solve this yourself. What’s the first step?” Then he or she remains quiet again.

After a few seconds, the student will suggest a first step and the teacher encourages him by saying, “That’s great. Now, where do we go from here?” This process continues until the student catches on. All the while, the teacher provides a mix of encouragement and guidance, but not answers.  At the end of this exchange, three positive things have happened.

First, the student has developed an understanding of how to solve the problem. Second, the teacher has observed how the student thinks. This informs how he or she should teach and coach the student in the future. Third, in learning this new skill or technique, the student develops additional confidence in his ability to think critically and independently.

The cool thing is that you can take this technique and transfer it directly into the workplace and use it to compel employees to think creatively and independently. Does it take some time and energy to employ this approach? Yes. Will it work every time? Not at first. But after a while employees will begin to understand that you will take them through this process whenever they ask questions they should be able to resolve themselves. This will compel them to think for themselves rather endure this kind of conversation each time. Once you have this practice in place, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how the number of lazy questions diminishes and everyone’s productivity rises. I know, I’ve tried it with the people who have worked for me.

So, here’s the bottom line. Unless you try this technique, you are not allowed to complain any more about people who ask lazy questions. I’m just sayin’.

Is Having Too Many Choices Exhausting You?

My wife and I decided to repaint our dining room last week. On Saturday morning, we drove over to the local home center to select a color. How hard could that be? We wanted something creamsicle-like. You know, like those ice cream bars you buy from the guy playing that repetitive song as he drives his truck through your neighborhood. (Can you hear that song in your head?)

We arrived at the paint-selection wall, and it truly is a wall, to find that the paint manufacturers have created not a few, but close to 30 variations on “creamsicle” paint. After 20 minutes trying to decide which shade we liked best, I felt like I had been through another of those nuisance exercises such as choosing from 100 toothpaste varieties or 50 kinds of salad dressing.  You’ve probably had the same experience.

In the past two decades, the number of choices we have for pretty much everything has exploded. The irony of this is that the brain dislikes choices. Why? Because the brain dislikes uncertainty and uncertainty produces discomfort.

Having too many choices has three negative impacts: 1) This uncertainty prompts the release of the stressor hormones adrenaline and cortisol; 2) We exhaust our supply of blood glucose (sugar energy) as we consider each of these choices and then say to ourselves, “No that’s not it. No, that’s not it. No, that’s not it,” over and over and over. 3) We have to manage the fear of giving up options as a part of sorting through these selections.

Our resistance to giving up options is one of the main causes of indecision. Sales research has even indicated that if you present customers with too many choices, they will abandon the shopping process. With the advent of digital technology, this overwhelming phenomenon has become even more intense.

So how can we effectively manage these endless choice dilemmas? Here are my five top suggestions:

Get clear on your desired outcome. The more parameters you can add to your expectation of a successful choice, the easier it will be to eliminate the many options that may initially cloud your consideration when confronted with having to make the decision.

Determine how important this choice is in the bigger picture. Have you ever found yourself spending WAY too much time making a decision of little consequence? This is probably because you got swept up in all the options. Be proactive about recognizing this phenomenon and work to ignore it. Getting clear on your desired outcome helps with this.

Accept that you will never make the perfect choice, no matter how options you have. The more significant the decision, the more pressure you will feel, especially if others are watching or depending on what you do. The best decision makers make a best faith effort and then act. You’ll never completely please everyone, including yourself.

Jot down the reasons for your decision. Buyer’s remorse is alive and well, whether it’s selecting a new car or hiring an employee. After you make a significant decision, make a list of your reasons for acting the way you did. When having second-thoughts or being challenged by others, you can reference these notes to assure yourself that you made a good faith effort.

Learn from the choices you make. Take time to reflect on both the outcome and the process you used. Author Michael Mauboussin, says “When evaluating other people’s decisions, you are better served by looking at their decision making process than their outcomes.” Try this on yourself.

Life is a series of choices. Don’t waste your energy on the ones that don’t matter. Pick a toothpaste, pick a paint, pick a salad dressing and move on.

How to Make Decisions When You Have Too Many Options

You know what it’s like. You stand in the toothpaste section trying to decide between ultra-white, super-white, or optic-white. Perhaps you need to choose between the 354 shades of white paint at the home center. Or maybe you’re stuck behind a person in the coffee shop who is overwhelmed by the difference between the upside-down caramel macchiato and the cookie mocha crumble macchiato with whip.

The world has too many choices. The other day, I needed to send someone a very large digital file. I Googled my options. On the first page alone, I found five alternatives, all free. They just wanted my email address. It can be exhausting to navigate through the average day when you’re bombarded by thousands of options.

So, how do you make well-considered decisions when you’re faced with too many choices? Allow me to share a few strategies from the top thinkers I’ve interviewed and observed over the past three decades.

Make fewer decisions – Every decision you make, large or small, consumes some of the blood glucose (sugar energy) your body needs to function. This is the reason you feel tired having battled traffic on the way to work. The same is true if you spend the first 30 minutes of the day clearing emails, Slack messages, texts, and Linked In notifications. The best decision-makers take stock of all the decisions they make during the typical day and work to eliminate, delegate or automate as many as they can. This leaves them with more energy to focus on the issues that count.

Focus your criteria – When was the last time you made a significant decision based on impulse? The options overwhelmed you. You might have simply surrendered because you were tired of thinking. You might have said, “Fine, I’ll just go with that option,” just to get the issue off your plate. The most effective decision makers take time to think through the elements and options before going to the meeting, entering the store, or meeting with the vendor. They also prioritize these elements to reduce the chance of getting sucked in by the “bright shiny object” rather than the critical consideration.

Ask for advice – Effective decision makers proactively ask for the input of others. Where others hesitate for fear of rejection or appearing dumb, these individuals approach anyone they think might be able to share helpful information or insights. That said, they are careful to examine the context within which the input is provided. In an unfamiliar restaurant, they will ask a nearby patron for menu recommendations rather than the waiter who wants to upsell them. In choosing a vendor, they will listen to other customers rather than the team member who keeps pushing for a particular option. Don’t be afraid to ask for input. Just keep it all in perspective.

One of the main reasons people have a hard time making decisions is that they are afraid of losing options. As a result, it can be easy to get stuck out of a desire to keep your options open. This phenomenon has been magnified in recent years by the endless choices on the internet. The best thinkers recognize how easy it is to be overcome by the fear of making a mistake. In response, they work hard to make fewer decisions, focus on their priorities and ask for trustworthy advice. In concert, these three practices enable them to act with confidence and without fear of failure or regret. You should too.

Managing a Boss Who Makes YOUR Decisions

Casey, a young colleague of mine, complained recently that her supervisor continually makes decisions about issues he has delegated to her. This is includes such things as spending her budget and forgetting to tell her and making commitments on her time and letting her know after it’s already be scheduled.

Since this supervisor held her position immediately before being promoted, he knows it inside and out. As a result, it is second nature for him to simply act, rather than taking the time to nurture her development. Besides, many colleagues still think of him as being in that role. So, they still go to him with their issues. Being a new professional, she reasonably assumed that he would act in a logical manner. If he delegated a task, shouldn’t he let her complete it? Unfortunately, that is not happening in this case.

Casey is getting an uncomfortable dose of reality about one of the vagaries of management – the boss who doesn’t let go. This type of scenario is not confined to entry-level jobs, of course. It can happen at all levels. It just gets more nuanced further up within the organization.

Sadly, I’ve heard this story too many times. The incidence of less-than-consistent supervision pervades lots of organizations. As a result, we sometimes break the spirit of enthusiastic newcomers. If this happens enough, these emerging contributors develop a jaded sense about supervision in general. Over time, this becomes very costly if not addressed through effective management training and coaching.

Like you, I feel for Casey. We have all had to navigate at least one manager and their inconsistent ways. So, here’s what I suggested. See if you agree.

Begin by taking a breath. Casey needs to be careful not to let her frustration overtake her perspective. No one likes to have their authority undercut or circumvented, especially when it comes to scheduling and budget. That said, this is an evolving relationship. Since her supervisor held her position just prior to being promoted, she needs to accept that there will be difficulties like this until they reach an understanding about boundaries.

Have some empathy. Since he was recently promoted from her position, this makes him a new supervisor. As much as she is stretching to learn her position, he is stretching to learn how to be a boss. Those new to supervision sometimes lapse back into doing the job they were comfortable with. Why? Because it provides a sense of comfort and security. Unfortunately, it also gets in the way of establishing the parameters necessary for a healthy supervisory relationship. If Casey is patient, much of this issue will probably subside as her boss gets busy with his new responsibilities.

Define the specific issues needing to be resolved. Casey will need to prioritize her concerns. She’s not going to be able to “fix” her supervisor. These issues are best handled one at a time. If she marches into his office with a list of concerns, it won’t go well. She needs to choose her battles. Which is more important right now, for instance, control over her personal schedule or control over her budget? If she is observant, by the way, she can learn about how to manipulate the budget, something she probably has little experience with.

Develop an approach that is supervisor-centered. While Casey is the one with the issues, she is asking her supervisor to change his ways. This is not something easily accomplished. We are all a product of our habits and routines. She’s going to have to convince him that these changes will be for his own good. It will save him time. It will reduce his heartburn. It will provide opportunities for him to establish better relationships with the other people he supervises. It will also make him look good when his boss sees that Casey is thriving in her job independently.

Keep your eye on the bigger picture. This is the first of what will be many supervisory relationships Casey will experience. Each one is a learning experience. Patience can be in short supply among new professionals anxious to make a difference. The best leaders and decision-makers discover that preparing well, anticipating others moves, and supporting their bosses priorities is the best way to navigate organizational culture and advance their own careers. Casey can either embrace this or resist it. Hopefully, she will embrace it.

What do you think? Is my advice on target? What would you add? What would you modify? I, and she, would like to know. Comment on the post or e-mail me at bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net.

Do Beliefs Inform Behavior?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend reminded me of the old saying “beliefs inform behavior.” Everyone reading this post has heard this adage, or something similar. While we mostly invoke it when considering our outlook and perspective, it is critical for supervisors to consider it as well.

In managing people in a variety of settings over the past 35 years, I’ve always found it fascinating how different people respond differently to identical instructions. Some just put in their time and the absolute minimum effort. Others put everything they’ve got into the task, regardless of what’s involved. Then there’s the bunch that fall somewhere in between.

If you’re a seasoned manager, you’re probably thinking, “All of this is common sense.” Maybe, but how much do you use these insights to inform the way you supervise people?  Here are a few suggestions, based on my experience and those of others I’ve observed over the past three decades.

First, find ways to assess work ethic. The longer I study management and supervision, the more I am convinced that everything starts with selection. If you are not placing candidates in a situation where they are compelled to demonstrate their skills, work ethic, and creativity you’re only getting half the picture. You can’t change someone else’s work ethic. So if they don’t have it to begin with, don’t hire them, no matter how much you’re tempted. If you already have an existing team, consider what seems to motivate each individual. Even those who count the minutes on Friday afternoons are engaged by certain things. You just have to find out what they are.

Second, ask people what they think. I read Jon Huntsman’s autobiography recently. Over the past 40 years, he and his team have built the second largest chemicals and plastics producer in the world. Time and again, he mentions that the key to acquiring and turning around failing chemical plants has been to ask the people working there how to improve the company’s functions. When was the last time you asked your employees how to improve things and incorporated those suggestions?

Third, offer opportunities your people will find engaging. Once a skill or routine has been mastered it becomes repetitive, regardless of its complexity. Even the most devoted employee will grow bored with day-to-day tasks. The formula is sadly familiar: Boredom informs belief. Belief informs behavior. Whether you provide cross-training, release time for new research, industry association involvement, or some other activity, consider what can you do to reinvigorate solid performers who feel locked into a dead-end routine?

With the turnover of each employee costing tens of thousands of dollars these days, paying attention to belief and outlook is an essential element of supervision.

Knowledge is Not Power If You Don’t Share It

The phrase, “knowledge is power” is commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon in the 1600’s. Regardless of its origin, some people interpret this statement as an entreatment to collect information for the purposes of building control and influence. After all, if you know it and someone else doesn’t, you have the power.

The best decision-makers recognize, however, that there is a critical corollary to this principle; You cannot leverage this knowledge if you do not share it. Leaders who keep secrets unreasonably, make those they lead suspicious of their motives. Managers who refuse to empower others with reasonable authority, engender resentment, distrust and employee turnover. The same thing is true of researchers, policymakers, and anyone else who trades in the currency of knowledge. Those who openly share their knowledge, with proper discretion of course, enjoy the trust and support of those around them. When challenging times arise, it is these people who rush to aid the decision-makers making tough choices.

Granted, the journey to this philosophy can be uncomfortable. First, there is our natural tendency to want to hold on to something once you’ve got it, whether this is property or influence over others. Then there’s the issue of trust. Will those with whom you share the knowledge use it appropriately and help you achieve your goals and objectives?  Finally, there is the discomfort fostered by the establishment of a new habit or practice. It’s just so much easier to remain in your comfort zone and do what you’ve always done. This is true, by the way, whether you’re a front-line supervisor or senior executive.

But no has one ever achieved the levels of success and influence society applauds by hoarding knowledge. So, how do you go about making this transition?

Observe and learn from those who do so. Consider the best decision-makers you know. How do they disseminate their knowledge and information? With whom do they share it? On what basis do they make these choices? If you don’t know, ask them. The best thinkers are usually happy to share their strategies. That’s how they developed their skills and insights. To open the conversation, you might say something like, “I’ve admired how you seem to use your knowledge to lead others. Might I buy you a cup of coffee sometime to find out how you do it?”

Decide what will be most helpful to share. Consider the knowledge you use to do your job. Who might benefit from knowing it as well? Sharing your knowledge allows you to delegate tasks, thereby saving you time and allowing you opportunity to learn new things and make new connections. It’s been said many times that the only way one moves up within an organization is to find a suitable replacement for your present position. The only way you can do this is by sharing your knowledge. Besides, if you covet information, people will eventually find ways to work around you. You don’t have to be an open book, by the way. In fact, oversharing can send the wrong message.

Begin incrementally. As I mentioned above, adopting this approach can be uncomfortable. You might be nagged by the thought that you’re giving your power away to others. Start by assigning the little tasks you should not be doing anyway. Train the appropriate person on how to perform the task. Then empower them by saying something like, “This task is yours now. Make your own decisions. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, but I am expecting you to make it your own.” If it is a considerable task, they might be uncomfortable at first. But if you persist in empowering them, they will embrace the authority.

Leveraging knowledge is how the best decision-makers empower others, leverage their time, enhance their personal power and achieve their goals. What can you do to implement the three strategies above to leverage your knowledge?

Making Decisions When the Boss Won’t Share

I was chatting with a woman during a seminar break. “All of what you’re saying sounds great,” she said. “But my boss provides information on a need-to-know basis. I don’t know if he’s insecure or doesn’t trust me. I just spend lots of time asking for what I need to know rather than him giving me all the details at the beginning. I feel like I’m playing Mother-May-I all the time and it’s irritating as hell.”

I’ve dealt with this question any number of times. I’ve also been a victim of it. I suspect she’s right. Most of this information hoarding comes from one or two sources, insecurity or a lack of trust. Regardless of its origin, it saps productivity and fosters employee turnover. After all, who would want to work in that type of environment?

Given clear direction and the necessary information, most employees can complete assignments and make decisions without asking endless questions. After a while, they come to understand their supervisor’s style. They discover the boundaries of their authority and how decisions are typically made within the organization.

Sometimes, however, a task is delegated without the necessary information or resources. I have found this is especially true when it comes to budgets. This is the boss who assigns a task but requires the person performing it to ask for approval for even the smallest amount. Solution? Ask the boss what your spending authority is. Even the most tight-fisted or insecure boss will be compelled to give a number. If they don’t, they know it will make them look controlling or distrustful.

If, over time, that spending authority turns out to be too limited, the person performing the task can always go back and ask that it be increased. The best way to do this is by pointing out the number of times the boss has had to be interrupted to give an approval. If this becomes a nuisance for the boss, he or she might even increase it without being asked.

Another flavor of this are the bosses who delegate tasks or authority, but then interfere. They make commitments without informing the person they have delegated the responsibility to. They spend money without letting this person know. Sometimes they show up at meetings where they aren’t needed and undercut this person’s authority simply by being present. Solution? Begin with the words, “I’m having trouble.” You might say, “I’m having trouble completing the project because I’m not sure who you’ve made commitments to.” Or you might say, “I’m having trouble staying on top of my budget because I don’t know what you’ve spent.” Then follow up by saying something like, “Can you help me find a way to make sure we’re on the same page?”

No one feels comfortable challenging or trying to correct the boss. Using the phrase, “I having trouble” is a diplomatic way of saying, “Please help me by getting out of the way.” You may find this difficult the first couple of times you do it. So plan out your approach and rehearse it out loud with someone you trust. In essence, you are managing your boss and that’s okay. At one time or another, all bosses need to be managed.

Finally, there is the boss who wants to be in on every decision. This can be the most maddening since it telegraphs distrust even if it isn’t. The boss may be simply curious. But that’s not how it comes across to the employee. Solution? Say, “I’m a bit confused about how far my authority extends.” Typically, the boss will say something like, “Tell me more” in response. That opens the door for you to provide three or four specific examples where you felt reluctant to make the decision since your boss was in the room.

Once again, approaching the boss in this manner requires some planning, rehearsal and confidence. Consider the different ways the boss might react and prepare for them as well. All of this takes some effort. But the alternative is to remain this decision purgatory and no one wants to do that.

Have other dilemmas like this? Send me an e-mail at bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net. I’d be happy to help.

 

 

 

At What Point Does Digital Technology Harm Employee Development?

A recent article in Vertical Distinct describes how Amazon.com uses digital technology to regulate its workplaces. The company has come under scrutiny a number of times because of its hyper-focus on improving productivity. It is understandable that productivity would be a focus in an environment filled with repetitive and monotonous tasks. At what point, however, does this focus become counterproductive? More globally, what impact do these practices have on the development of decision making and critical thinking skills among those who work for the company?

Amazon currently employs 850,000 people in the US and throughout the world. The vast majority of these individuals will move on to work at other firms over time. So, what happens if Amazon’s hyper-focus on productivity on prevents these employees from honing the skills essential to thinking independently in future work environments?

Imagine hiring a twenty-something who has spent the first five years of his working life in an Amazon distribution center where his every step and action is programmed and regulated. If you ask him to think for himself, he may not know what that looks like. Will he have developed the workplace problem solving skills one might assume of someone in their twenties? Multiply this challenge several million-fold over time and you begin to see the significance of the dilemma.

Firms hiring Amazon alumni would be wise to consider this fact during selection. No firm wants to spend extra resources teaching basic thinking skills and workplace resourcefulness. Amazon is not solely responsible for this phenomenon, of course. But as goes one of a nation’s business leaders, others are sure to follow.

Sadly, this phenomenon contributes to the learned helplessness we are already complaining about in society. Learned helplessness is fostered by three factors that have combined to create a sense of personal dependence rather than personal resourcefulness. First, there is menu-driven thinking or the over-dependence on digital menus and technology. Regardless of age and experience, we are all manipulated by these systems. This is especially true for digital natives.

Second there is the belief that everyone is entitled to success as they define it. An example of this are “trophy kids, along with educators and others who believe we shouldn’t keep score during games because the loser may have their feelings hurt. Third are the enabling managers who answer endless questions, rather than compelling their people to develop the critical thinking skills to “figure it out” independently. Effective decision skills evolve over time as life’s obstacles are confronted and overcome. Much of this takes place on the job.

Some managers reading this might argue, “My job is not to teach critical thinking skills. My job is to get the most out the people I supervise.” While this feeling is understandable, one must wonder where the threshold lies between productivity and workforce development as a responsibility to both workers and the marketplace in general.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? No. Rather than a solution, there is more likely to be an on-going tension between the desire for productivity and profit and responsibility to the greater good. There are, of course, consequences if there becomes an imbalance in this tension. If too much focus is placed on productivity and the bottom line, employers will experience high turnover and heightened tension between management and those it employs. (We have recently witnessed a bit of this at Amazon.) If the focus is placed too much on employee development, then productivity and profits may be impacted.

What are your thoughts on this conundrum? I would like to know and so would others. Post your comments below or send me an email to bobw@commonsenseenterprises.net.

Ready – Fire – Aim Revisited

Back in the 1980s, the phrase “ready – fire – aim” was popularized by management experts as a solution for growing companies at a rapid pace. More recently, business titan, Jeff Bezos, was quoted as saying, “Being wrong might hurt you a bit, but being slow will kill you.” If you think about it, both observations make the same essential point – make a decision! You don’t, however, have to be a Wall Street wizard to apply this principle.

Several years ago, I had dinner with Jay, a successful friend of mine. He had just attended a day long retreat for colleagues running multi-million-dollar companies. I asked him what he had taken away from the meeting. “See-do,” he said. I asked him to explain.

“As we went around the room sharing ideas, one of the things I noticed was that every one of us, talked about a usable idea we had discovered and every single one of us had attempted to implement it immediately. Not all of them worked out, but I was stuck by the fact that none of us hesitated or overthought the concept. In other words, we saw and we did.”

I have tried to live by that principle ever since. It’s not easy. Our always brain wants to protect us. Therefore, any time we introduce uncertainty into our routine, it begins to flood our thinking with all the reasons this new idea could be harmful. To make matters worse, it releases the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol into our nervous system making the feeling of uncertainly all that more intense. Since no one likes discomfort, our first instinct is to draw back and be careful. Unfortunately, this reaction has one of two effects: 1) It discourages us from acting all together or 2) It compels us to analyze the idea to death, in a desperate attempt to remove all the risk. There’s even a term for this – analysis paralysis.

Successful decision makers, like Jay, acknowledge this and act anyway. Might there be some initial discomfort? Probably. Is there a chance for the decision goes wrong? Sure. But if you continue to make decisions and learn to manage the discomfort, you’ll be further ahead over time even if you make lots of mistakes.

What’s the great idea you have been tossing around for the past few days, weeks, or even months? Uncertainty of outcome prevents most of us from becoming more successful than we are, no matter how we measure this. Do you need to have a clear plan for implementation? Yes. Do you need to have your resources in place? Sure. But don’t spend so much time getting ready that you never act on the opportunity. Success is about making decisions, not over-analyzing them out of fear. Put your discomfort aside, pull the trigger and enjoy the adventure.