by Rick Brenner
From time to time, most of us have to do annoying or unpleasant tasks. And most of us, to one degree or another, procrastinate. There are numerous strategies for dealing with personal procrastination, but what do you do about procrastination as an organizational pattern? Here are eight strategies for reducing the blocks that keep your organization from getting things done by the time you would have liked to have gotten them done.
We all have personal strategies for getting things done. I'm thinking about the things we find hard to do, or objectionable to do — your taxes, mowing the lawn, or anything difficult. But what are the analogous strategies an organization can use? What can you do as an organizational leader to create patterns of completion of objectionable tasks, so that they do actually get done?
Many of us just don't do them. They remain undone until some severe threat motivates us to get to it. The monthly status report might actually take only ten minutes to write, but we stall and stall until our supervisors remind us. This strategy, which all of us recognize as dumb, is probably the most common — and the least effective.
Organizations can behave the same way. A project that's running behind schedule and over budget is allowed to continue in the same pattern until the difficulty is so severe it can no longer be avoided.
Here are eight strategies organizational leaders can use to reduce organizational procrastination.
One of the most significant sources of organizational procrastination is fear. If people are afraid even to speak about a difficulty, it's almost impossible to deal with it. Do what you can to make the work environment safe enough for people to say difficult things out loud.
To find out if your organization is safe, you can ask yourself if you really believe that your culture supports the Five Freedoms of Virginia Satir. [Satir 1976]
If one (or more) of these Five Freedoms is missing, your organizational culture has an element of fear that could threaten its ability to perform to its potential. For example, without the freedom to say what one thinks, instead of what one should, it's possible that a group could agree that a project can be completed on time, even if it's hopelessly behind schedule. This could lead to procrastination of the decision to slip the schedule.
If you find that safety is lacking, what can you do? First, acknowledge to yourself that a safety problem exists. If you have trouble with that, then the problem is partly inside yourself. Next, consider getting outside assistance. Building safety is more likely to succeed if you have the help of an outside facilitator, because people external to the organization are less constrained by the internal dynamics of the organization. Moving outward from yourself can itself be unsafe, so proceed with care.
There's a good chance that once you get something started, people will break down whatever barrier was holding them back, and they might even build up some momentum that could carry them through to completion. Anyone in the organization can take the initiative to get something started. Acknowledge those who do.
If you choose not to initiate an activity immediately, make sure that you pick a definite time to do so. If you just say "We'll do it later," later might never come. One good way to do this is to involve the organization in the scheduling process. Of course, people must have the freedom to reschedule the work if necessary. But remember — if it's rescheduled twice, you're probably seeing organizational procrastination.
If you can, you pay your credit cards on time to avoid the finance charges. That's common sense. But we don't always apply this good sense when it comes to project work. Sometimes, when we delay dealing with a problem, it can only grow. When we finally do deal with it, it's much bigger, more expensive to address, and might even be impossible to treat. We can think of these effects as penalties for late payment.
Often, the best time to deal with a problem on a project is the moment right after you understand it. That way, you avoid the late payment penalties. When you're thinking about delaying action on a problem, ask yourself: Am I delaying because I don't yet understand it, or am I delaying because I just don't like to pay my bills? If the latter, take out your checkbook and start writing.
If a task is completed ahead of schedule, acknowledge the people responsible for it. But instead of personal, individual, or monetary rewards, reward them with additional responsibility. For example, if they resolved a difficult problem, offer them the opportunity to work on an even more difficult problem. Encourage other teams to seek their advice. They'll feel great, the work will get done, and expertise will propagate.
How many peaches have you eaten in your entire life? If you're over thirty, and you like peaches, even moderately, you've probably eaten at least 1,000. Many of us have eaten ten times that amount. That's a lot of peaches — but it's a task we've accomplished because we did it in small parts, one peach at a time. Organizations that face daunting tasks can sometimes do the same thing. If a task can be broken down into useful parts, tackle the parts one at a time.
Estimate how long it will take for your organization to complete a task, or some chunk of a task, and try to beat your estimate. In effect, you compete with yourselves. Make your estimate generous enough so that you avoid creating an atmosphere of undue pressure.
Find someone — a friend or colleague or consultant — who's willing to act as a coach. Report your activities to your coach, and your coach will help you set goals and keep moving toward them. A coach is especially valuable if your organization isn't reaching its goals and you really can't say why. Encourage your organization to use the same strategy — find coaches and consultants when things get stuck.
Find two or three others whom you can rely on for support in moving toward your goals, in
getting your tasks done. Mutual support — exchange of experiences and understanding — is very
effective in keeping your focus on your goals. And thanks to modern communications, people in
your support group need not be in the same town. Email and telephone work just as well for this
A wonderful resource on procrastination in its many forms is Piers Steel's Procrastination Central. You'll find quotations, jokes, helpful advice, and links to just about every other Web site on procrastination.
For an application of the Five Freedoms to examining the ethics of tactics of influence, see "Ethical Influence: Part I," Point Lookout for July 4, 2007.
Could you use some help with procrastination in your organization? Do you think your organization might have a problem with safety? Through consulting, seminars, or coaching, I can help your people create a safer environment, and learn new ways of dealing with unpleasant tasks.
Contact me to discuss your specific situation, by email at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com or by telephone at (617) 491-6289, or toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.