Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

03/10/2014 02:06 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2014

For many of us, it is a rare occurrence to be afforded the time to enjoy the satisfaction of an attained goal, let alone to look at the work that preceded it. Yet it is this process -- the act of stopping and assessing what we have accomplished and whether we have fulfilled our original intention -- that ensures we remain true to our guiding mission. Instead, we often find ourselves hyper-focusing on the minutiae of individual problems rather than identifying and resolving underlying issues. Most of us can become deeply mired in attempting to manage, at the micro-level, problems that require a more macro-approach. Given the pace of change, it seems counter-intuitive to make this recommendation, but we must commit to making the time to evaluate where we are, how we got there, and where we want to be.

This reluctance most of us feel to take the critical time away from our day to day work to assess these three concerns has become endemic to our increasingly busy workplaces. While managers and leaders speak endlessly about the value of strategic thinking and planning, there is precious little time spent evaluating where that strategy got us and whether where we are is where we wanted to be. Rather, we consume ourselves with creating work-arounds that might make sense in the moment but are unlikely to resolve any problems in the longer term. We are stuck treading water, not making any real gains.

The evaluation phase of any new initiative is when we learn how effective our work has been. While it is often most expedient to link this process to a number -- frequently a dollar amount -- the reality is that there are complexities associated with success that require us to be more nuanced in our thinking. If we hit our goals, there may be casualties we fail to see. If we miss those goals, our response must be holistic enough to take into account all aspects of the initiative so we can determine where we went wrong.

I once worked for someone who was a decision-making champ. She could assess a situation in minutes and execute a response before the hour was out. There was little time spent processing and certainly none spent agonizing over options. More than once I heard her admonish employees to "Make a decision, even if it's wrong." There is value in this decisiveness, in that it gives the perception of forward motion. But a lifetime of this reactive activity can also lead to an unpredictable corporate culture and a trajectory littered with "one-offs" and expedient decisions. The policy becomes "Just act!" rather than, "What's best for the organization at this time and what will set meaningful precedent for the future?" The latter certainly takes more time, but it yields a learning community many of us want to be a part of.

Many years ago, when I was in the second semester of my doctoral work, I took the required policy seminar and quickly learned that if I was going to be successful in that class (and, it turns out, in life as well), I was going to have to slow down. The professor reminded me weekly: "Stop coming to every problem with the answer." My instinct was to approach everything with a resolution, regardless of how well I understood the situation. It was a life-changing experience to be forced to stop and evaluate the landscape before creating a policy to manage it. This experience created in me a process of systems thinking that profoundly influenced me.

There is best practice built around policy and strategy assessment and evaluation. All of the writing in this area stresses not just the value of the assessment phase, but the unequivocally critical nature of this process. None of what I write is new. Yet the reality is that few organizations routinely undertake this kind of self-study, likely because many in leadership fear it will draw energy away from the forward movement we are all seeking. The paradox of the decision to forgo the evaluation phase is that, in the long run, everything takes more time. We can reforecast numbers until we are blue in the face, but if we haven't performed a comprehensive assessment of the current situation, how we got there, and how we want to move forward, then we are likely to find ourselves in the same place the next time we have a minute to look around. I would argue that this short-sightedness undermines most organizations. It does so in insidious ways, mostly by draining energy through repeated conversations about what isn't working and unfulfilled promises that, as soon as there is a free moment, everyone will sit down and figure things out.

This makes each of us Dory, the blue tang fish from Finding Nemo, who has no memory of the past. Each second of her life is brand new -- no context, no story, no memories, no guiding principles. This has both the benefit of making her a delight to be with, in that her innocence and fresh take on any situation is free from the cumbersome baggage that weighs most of us down. But it also makes her vulnerable to all sorts of threats, in that she is unable to remember what might be dangerous and so has no internal compass that would allow her to act thoughtfully. She has no context within which to evaluate her situation -- no reason to fear, no reason to plan -- and so she can only repeat her mantra endlessly: "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming."

Ultimately, because she's a major character in a Disney film, Dory is saved from peril over and over again. Those of us not made of Pixar magic must find the time, even if it means scheduling it, to stop swimming long enough to figure out where we came from and where we want to go. As we undertake a commitment to evaluation, it is possible that we will create a renewed passion for our vision and the energy to expand the way we are thinking about the work we do every day.