Italian Trulli Philippe Barbe

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The seduction of doing

by Philippe Barbe
11 Aug 2021

There is a pleasure in doing. The work is getting done. Something tangible is appearing. We are accomplishing something. Our progress can be measured, hence managed!

What about just sitting and thinking? Try it.

Nothing is being done! There is no tangible result. What have you done? How do you measure it? You’ve just sitting, thinking! You may as well say that you have been dreaming!

If you want to manage everything and only what is measured can be managed then make sure no one thinks.

But can a corporation survive if its employees don’t think? If its leaders don’t think? If everyone’s time horizon is just the next 10 minutes, tomorrow, next month, the end of the quarter? Probably not.

The philosopher Henri Bergson posited that we should “do as a person of thinking and think as a person of doing”.

The reality though, is that in the vast majority of companies that I have seen there is bias toward operations and people who “do as a person of doing”. That attitude percolates at all levels. Your boss wants to see results, hence you want to see results from your subordinates, because their results is part of your own. Are you paid to have your team only thinking?

Probably not. But you are not paid to have your team doing stupid things either. Hence it is a matter of balance.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in doing… doing is good. But it is a problem when it becomes short term optimization. It is a problem when we do something because it guarantees immediate success regardless of the long term consequences.

It is very much like climbing a mountain: from far away, the path of steepest ascent may look as the shortest distance to the summit. But, after some climbing you may encounter a canyon or a cliff face, which will force you to go down or retrace your steps and start over on a different path. Or, this path of steepest ascent doesn’t actually take you the summit only to a smaller peak. Another path, less steep, more winding, seemingly longer, could have saved you both time and effort to reach the summit if you had done some thinking before doing.

On the one hand, short term optimization without a vision is surely a recipe for long term failure. On the other, long term optimization without short term action is a recipe for short term failure as nothing is done, no customer is satisfied, and no money is made.

Everyone, and in particular leaders, need to set aside some time for their own thinking. There is no one-size-fits-all. Different patterns may be used at different time, depending on what needs to be done.

It can be a daily routine, setting aside a couple of hours or more. One of my very productive colleagues did his “doing” in the morning, set aside the afternoon for thinking, and left every day at 5pm. That system worked for him. Others prefer to “front-end load”, spending lots of time before the start of a project thinking about of what needed to be done, then at the beginning of the project spend more time on operation to make sure all the stakeholders are well engaged, and then slowly retreat to think about the next project

Your subordinates need to do the same at their own levels. By setting the example of not doing but thinking, you can make your team wiser, more thoughtful, and better in the long term.

Thinking takes time. Try to invent something and you will quickly realize that coming up with good new ideas is very difficult – bad new ideas are much easier to come by.

Thus, not only does thinking not produce something tangible immediately, it also tends to defer production for some time. Thus there is a pressure to not spend much time thinking. “Just do something” is the rallying cry that becomes an imperative.

While doing something may solve the immediate instance of a problem, it may not solve the actual problem at all. I recall waiting to exit an airport parking lot where the gates were defective and the lineup of cars was growing. An impatient and pragmatic driver jumped out of his car and did something… he forced open the gate and forgot about people paying their parking fee. The something he did worked to solve the immediate problem but once that lineup of cars left the parking lot, the actual problem came back, unsolved! Someone had done something, which helped on the spot, but, as far as really solving the problem nothing had been done.

Leaders have the duty to balance the long term resolution of problems with the short term needs. With the proper vision, short term fixes can be designed to become foundations of a longer term solution. Or at the minimum, designed to not impede the long term solution.

What can we conclude?

To paraphrase Bergson (with a twist)… “operationalize the thinking and think the operations!” If someone tells you to do something, answer by requesting to think of something!