Activity Is Not The Same As Progress

After another week on the road, I am typing these words late Friday evening on a plane home. I spent time with three different companies (who shall remain unnamed) this week and on the way back I was reflecting on the commonalities of what I learned this week. The main lesson was: lots of activity; not nearly as much progress.

In each of the companies, I saw lots of activity. Different people were beating on their respective chests, looking to impress the people around them with all the energy and activity that they manage to initiate and drive themselves. And often with a very convincing story to associate all the waves that they’re creating. However, when looking into the actual impact of all that activity, the picture turns much less rosy: much of the activity does not actually lead to any progress for the business.

The reason for people starting activities is clear and typically well intended. Especially in times of transition, it typically is impossible to get a clear, strategic direction from top leadership. There is a lot of confusion and forces pulling in different directions. For a forward leaning, ambitious individual, it often feels impossible to sit and wait for the murky waters to settle and it feels better to start swimming in what is perceived as the right direction. It may well be better to start moving, rather than wait for clarity, but it is far from clear that the activity will lead to a positive impact on the company.

Second, when it comes to R&D, there is the important dimension of time: although business can change it’s mind on a dime, the reality is that all the software resulting from hundreds, if not thousands, of person years of effort can not really change that quickly. In one of the companies that I visited this week, the R&D organization had started to refactor their system more than 3 years ago to enable a business strategy that had materialized only in the last months. My experience is that the most successful companies also have the most proactive and strategic R&D organizations for exactly this reason.

Third, many organizations suffer from the constant emergence of smaller and bigger kingdoms, organized by business line, function, country, site or, in the worst case, even around individuals. Although these kingdoms often are surprisingly resilient and powerful, the kings and queens reign by the power invested in them by top management. A well known saying in management is that “perception is reality”. Consequently, creating a perception of progress by creating a flurry of activity is beneficial for the kings and queens interested in extending their reign.

Although the aforementioned and many other reasons are compelling, the fact remains that we are interested in driving real, tangible and sustainable progress for the company. Much of the activity does not necessarily contribute to that desired progress. So, next time you’re initiating some activity, project, task force, action or any other work item, ask yourself: is this just activity for activity’s sake or will this result in real progress.

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