Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 28, 2011 10:21 AM
It's well-known that busy people get the most done. Their secret is simple: They never stop moving.
Of course, sitting still can be a good thing if it involves renewal, reflection, and focused attention (or having meals with the family). But sitting still can be a bad thing if it involves procrastination, indecision, and passivity.
Companies heading downhill have passive cultures. Unmade decisions pile up. Opportunities are lost. No one wants to risk making a mistake. It becomes easier to sit it out than get into the game. One of my favorite examples involves the backwater bank in which employees would send customers who had complicated problems to the rival bank across the street, rather than try to do anything.
In contrast, in companies with high levels of innovation, people take initiative. They start new things. They don't wait to be told. They get routine work done efficiently in order to free up the time to get involved in something new. Here are some of the reasons.
Small wins matter. Small wins pave the way for bigger wins. A nudge in the right direction, as Cass Sunstein and the new behavioral economists tell us, can lead to major tipping points (per Malcolm Gladwell) when you achieve critical mass. As I saw in my study of business turnarounds and sports teams, confidence — the expectation of a positive outcome that motivates high levels of effort — is built on one win at a time.
Accomplishments come in pieces. A journey of a thousand miles is daunting. The single step with which the journey begins is manageable. Every step you take now adds up by getting that much closer to a goal. Busy people in high-productivity environments tend to take just one more action, return one more phone call, set one more thing in motion before calling it quits for the day. By tomorrow, new demands will start piling up. Mental tricks like dividing big tasks into numerous small steps make it possible to identify immediate actions to get big things off the ground.
Perfection is unattainable anyway. Forget perfection. Just do it. So what if you're wrong? You can always try again. In an uncertain world of rapid change, business strategy includes room for improvisation. Live by some classic slogans: Best is the enemy of good. (Don't wait for perfect conditions.) Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (It takes a little risk to get rewards.)
Actions produce energy and momentum. It simply feels better to take action than sitting around navel-gazing and getting sluggish. Overwork can bring stress, but, in fact, many studies show that the important factor in work stress is lack of control. Identifying a positive action is a way to feel in control. Getting moving doesn't drain energy; it tends to build energy. For people trying to solve the national obesity epidemic, or just to lose a few pounds, exercise is more fun than dieting.
These principles represent more than management tips. They reflect a can-do philosophy that is essential for any entrepreneur or any place that wants more entrepreneurs. The only way to activate potential is to support action.
Sometimes it doesn't seem easy. Organizational cultures, autocratic bosses, uncooperative co-workers, long losing streaks, the uncertainty of shifting industry conditions, and big world events like natural disasters and revolutions can stop people in their tracks. But those who emerge triumphant, and get the most done anyway, are the people who would rather take action, any action, than wait around.