Waiting for perfect conditions that never come?

My friend Helga Henry recently sent me an excellent Guardian article by Oliver Burkeman. I like Burkeman. While pop psychology is a field full of bunkum, he is one of the few writers on the topic worth reading: irreverent, sceptical and sensible.

The article talks about “The Importance Trap”: an often-unrecognised cause of procrastination. Oliver describes The Importance Trap as:

“…the way that, the more an activity really matters to you, the more you start to believe you need focus, energy and long stretches of uninterrupted time in which to do it – things that, you tell yourself, you currently lack. And so the less likely you are to do it. Unimportant stuff gets done; important stuff doesn’t.” [my emphasis]

Oliver gives personal examples, like getting round to reading the classics. My take is that it’s vital for business leaders to be very aware of The Importance Trap, too. Because it’s a trap that lies in wait not only for individuals, but also for organizations.

I am always hearing executives talk about some new initiative they need to take. It might be something that would solve a big problem, like getting people to stop over-serving a dwindling market just because it’s familiar and comfortable, and to spend more time and effort on a more promising new market instead. Or it might be something that would create loads of new value, like getting different silos in the business to start working together on innovations that benefit the customer, rather than squabbling over budgets and turf.

Whatever the issue, they’ll do a good job of convincing me of  it’s importance and urgency.

Then they’ll say: “But we won’t do it YET.  I want to WAIT until I can dedicate more resources, give people a good run at it, get these hires completed…”

I call this “Getting ready to prepare to start to change”, and it’s one of the major causes of slow progress towards strategic goals.

“But,” you might protest, “I really do need to wait.”

And the rationale will be solid, no doubt.

The thing is, though, that when the appointed time finally comes around, you may find:

  • Someone else has now grabbed those resources you were going to use.
  • The people you earmarked are now busy with other new things (people are always too busy, aren’t they? They rarely get an absolutely clear run at anything.)
  • While you’ve been making those new appointments, one of the existing contributors you were counting on has left your organization for pastures new, because they saw the issue too, and didn’t think change was happening fast enough,

The timing is never ideal. Sometimes, waiting for it to become ideal is just that: waiting.

One CEO I know has a sign on his wall to inspire him. It show the words of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, French General and Allied Supreme Allied Commander during the final year of the First World War, credited by historians for the strategy which secured the Allied victory. This is what the sign says:

Mon centre cède, ma droite recule, situation excellentej’attaque.

(My centre is giving way,
my right is retreating,
situation excellent,
I am attacking.)

General Foch understood the danger of the Importance Trap: if you wait for perfect conditions, you will wait a long time (and conditions might actually get much worse).

Andy’s Advice: It’s not an easy lesson and it’s easy to backslide, but here it is: If it’s really Important, the time is now.