Put it on paper to stir the action

Tom Peters On Excellence
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The Independent Online
HOW DO WE make sense of ambiguous phenomena? We usually sit and ponder. But, if we are wise, we will do something concrete - and then watch what happens.

A friend and I recently were discussing a plan for a new business. We talked about it, off and on, for weeks (which is great, because meandering conversations are essential, at the very least to see if the idea can sustain one's own interest).

But we were stuck. No clear first moves emerged.

Then, during a 15-minute cab ride in Manhattan, I sketched a two-year time line on the back of a junk-mail envelope It was sloppy . . . full of wild guesses, with gaping holes.

Yet, it changed everything - instantly. First, it gave us a sense of urgency. Even though we had two years to play with, it became clear we needed to got under way - now.

Second, it gave us something to show friends.

Some of those friends added items. Some crossed things out. Some changed our time estimates, modestly or dramatically. But most important was that no one we showed it to could leave it alone - and everyone ended up by offering valuable (I think) advice.

As of this writing, 99 per cent (plus) of our work lies ahead. Nonetheless, we are on the move, and I learned some lessons from the experience.

1) To get going, get going. Early discussions were invaluable. But a practical outline, even a checklist on the back of an envelope, can be, literally, a leap forward.

2) It doesn't matter how half-baked a plan is. So what if it was dumb? By laying out a few "hard" dates, the project took on a new-found concreteness. These milestones, per se, made our effort real (to us, anyway), and served as a powerful motivator.

Karl Weick, in his forthcoming book Sensemaking in Organisations, tells of a platoon of Hungarian soldiers lost in the Alps. One soldier found a map in his pocket and, using it, the troops got out safely. They subsequently discovered that the map was for another part of the mountains. "When you are confused," Weick explains, "any old strategic plan will do. Strategic plans animate people. Once people begin to act, they generate tangible outcomes [which] help them discover what is occurring . . . and what should be done next."

3) The simpler the first step, the better. Suppose we had waited and produced a much better plan two months down the road? First, I'm not sure it would have been better (we would have probably just kept gabbing - and perhaps talked ourselves out of doing anything. Second, we would have lost two critical months. And third, had we shown our friends a 10-page, 10-colour document, they probably would have been put off. But given our evident navet, they felt compelled to help us in the same way mothers look out for the young.

Weick explains the deeper significance. "Accurate perceptions," he writes, "have the power to immobilize. People who want to get into action tend to simplify rather than elaborate." Or, as waterfront philosopher Eric Hoffer and physicist Richard Feynman both have put it, victory usually goes to those green enough to underestimate the monumental hurdles they are facing.

4) Short beats long. The brevity of the document clarified the dimensions of the project for us. Also, busy outsiders could absorb it in a glance.

The lessons from this homely experience have extraordinary importance for business (and life). "People act in order to think," Weick says, turning conventional wisdom on its ear. Or, I would say, smart people act their way into clear-headed thinking.

There are those who analyse and analyse (Ready, aim, aim, aim . . .) and those who act (Ready, fire, aim . . . a maxim attributed to various people). The reason the do-first, think-later bunch generally outperform the painstaking ponderers is not necessarily their energy (though that may play a role). It is mostly that those who hurl themselves into the maelstrom learn faster from taking faster action - any action.

Unless you have the nerve to put forward that simplistic one-page outline, or a very primitive prototype, there is no way to get advice or see how the outside world reacts. Or see what you think yourself (How can I know what I think till I see what I say - EM Forster.)

Add it up and you get this mostly honoured-in-the-breach message: Don't wait - do.

Steel yourself against the possibility of rebuff and ridicule, draft something raw and brash about your embryonic idea, and start shopping it around. Today.

TPG Communications

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