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Never confuse motion for progress

Motion – Appearing busy, talking about progress.
Progress – actually changing something
— OSC

Imagine a dog trying to bury a bone on a marble floor. Plenty of furious activity, zero progress. We see this, in organisations, manifesting as scores of busy people rushing from meeting to meeting while nothing changes. It isn’t a case of the more it changes it stays the same, it just stays the same – with the appearance of change.

A tragic example comes from a speech in parliament a few years ago. It was reported that since its inception, Child, Youth and Family (CYFs) has been under review "almost continuously" and has been restructured at least 14 times. Oranga Tamariki-Ministry for Children is but the latest in these restructures. Despite the massive structural disturbance for its staff, it has demonstrated many failings when it comes to actually caring for children. Attention, motion and plenty of dollars have been spent by ‘executives’ (you can’t call it an investment when money is being piled in a heap and set on fire) but little progress. This despite the many sad and tragic stories with damage that will impact on individuals and society for decades. It is the front line staff that bear the brunt of this, both in the workloads and on their sanity.

What seems to be favoured today is the fantasy of busyness at the expense of thinking and doing. Apparently, there isn’t enough time and money to do it right but plenty of time and money to repeat pointless exercises multiple times. This is a classic example of short-termism.

The following are the symptoms of an organisation caught in the motion trap:

  • Full calendars – When you want to meet with an executive (in name only) and are told they have some time available in five weeks. Your, “oh gosh, they must be very important!” comment is unlikely to be taken as sarcastic. If you encounter this just make the decision yourself, as this is a sign they are likely to be highly ineffective.
  • Meeting impossibility – the principle that the odds of organising a meeting diminish in proportion to the number of people required.
  • Idealistic strategy – LeadershiT inspired strategy built around random utopian statements and the separation of strategy formulation from implementation. The vagueness of the strategy means that it will never be implemented but it will be claimed to be driving the organisation forwards.
  • Reviews, restructures and consultants – This is simply a costly way to be told what you should already know. Consider the amount of taxpayer’s money spent where the typical outcome achieved is minimal compared to the money spent and that’s not factoring in internal costs (staff time) and intangible costs (turnover and demotivated staff).
  • The report blues – Everyone is busy reporting on what they are intending to do without actually doing anything.
  • “Busy” language – People make comments about meetings and how they take all their time (promoting their own importance). Snide comments about others: “Nice of you to come in”, “early mark today?” etc.

To change this requires real management including the leadership part that is native to good management. Actions speak louder than words and it is what you do that will change your organisation’s culture over time. You need to ensure that you reward the behaviours you want to see more of.

Step 1: Abolish committees. Most of these will be performing (or avoiding) functions that should be part of management anyway. The necessary ones will soon become obvious.

The lesson: Motion for motion’s sake is pointless. Concentrate on what you are trying to achieve and then take the time to think about what you need to do to actually make progress.

Roger McEwanComment