Originally published January 14, 2021 Forbes.com
Two days ago, I bought a sequin dress.
Having owned nothing of the sort for over a decade, I justified this purchase for a post-pandemic NYC trip I have been dreaming of for a year. But as I reflected on the lessons of 2020, the purchase seemed to ignite something much deeper.
The year 2020 led our businesses through a series of reactions ranging from pining to pivoting; hopeless to heartfelt; indignant to innovative. No matter where you fell in the swirl of reactions, it has reminded us that time is limited by what we make of it — whether that is with our families or our customers.
Over the last year a company I am studying moved forward with a reorganization to add a new sales-specific department. The move was envisioned to be a much-anticipated partnership with the market portfolios that were previously solely responsible for sales. Enthusiasm, intellect and capabilities were all high as they kicked off the new fiscal year. Yet as this year, and quarter one, draws to a close, the department has yet to make any significant improvements and has not made a single sale. The obstacle in their way: analysis over action. No less than 50 reports containing endless excel charts and countless hours of number crunching had been completed. But there had not been a single client outreach, call or email.
This challenge is neither new nor isolated. From Aesop’s The Fox and the Cat to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, literature has been articulating this human struggle for centuries. Our natural propensity is to alternate between the safety of a single well-proven method and falling into the rabbit hole of endless new options, never to make an actionable choice.
There are three reasons to choose action over analysis:
• Over-analysis is progress kryptonite: It is both prudent and productive to look in the rearview and the side mirrors before pulling out into traffic. However, stoplights are time-limited, and our analyses should be too. Progress and innovation only happen through action, even if it’s imperfect action.
Action Step: set boundaries. Without clear guideposts, it is easy to allow our time to be stolen by other projects. Whether it’s through a weekly limit on time spent on analysis and mandated time to action or a limited-time analysis project with a clear end date, setting boundaries and forcing clear action steps will open the door to progress.
• Crystal balls are not real: If 2020 taught us nothing else, it reaffirmed our inability to predict the future. All the 2019 planning in the world was deemed irrelevant for most businesses in 2020. The more stalwart a business was to actions based solely on past lessons, the more challenged they were in times of crisis.
Action Step: create a safe-to-fail culture. There are numerous reasons people postpone action and opt for analysis, but one of the most common is fear — particularly fear of failure. The more sensitive to (read: critical of) failure your organization is, the less employees will branch out of their comfortable, success-assured bubbles. This can be a critical waste of employee talents, not to mention missed opportunities for innovation.
• The mustard dilemma: In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote The Ketchup Conundrum for The New Yorker, comparing the failed attempt to diversify the ketchup industry to its mustard counterpart. Out of curiosity, I counted the number of mustard varieties and brands on a subsequent trip to the market. I stopped counting at 87.
Action Step: focus on one step at a time. Modern-day endless options are a blessing and a curse. The more choices available, the more time it takes to decipher the differences between them. This is further complicated when we have multiple “priority” initiatives. Individually, we need to assign priority to action items so they are not lost in the minutia of everyday tasks. As a leader, do your part to encourage and incentivize your employees to do the same.
And the sequin dress? I might have a long list of dream scenarios in which it will be the perfect, most fabulously appropriate attire, but I won’t be waiting for those. That dress will see a date night with my husband in my small-town local restaurant, a solo writing evening at my favorite wine bar and a candlelight dinner at home on the good china for no occasion whatsoever. Because life happens in single moments and tiny steps toward goals.
So in 2021, take the tiny steps of action that lead to results. Make a promise to yourself and your business: wear the sequin dress, eat off the good china, put away the forecasting spreadsheet and pick up the phone. Real life and real customers are waiting.