Next action: ask why?

Photo by blakeburris

In the last few weeks to different perspectives have mashed up into one coherent thought in my head. I guess it is s continuation of my latest focus on the issue of balance. On one side, I find the idea of outcome focus as discussed by Anita Woolley to be very compelling. Here is a quick reminder from one of my posts on this subject:

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

On the other hand, in the last few weeks I have been listening to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. One of the main concepts Allen introduces in his book is the question: “what is the next action?” Allen advocates for a focus on the concrete tangible doable action. Here is a short description of this concept:

… Next Actions concept says that if you have an abstract item on your to-do list (replace tires on car), you’ll never do it because every time you look at it, you’ll glaze the in-between steps. But you do have to think about what to do in order to do it. So why not think about it now? By thinking about it now and writing it down as a Next Action (the Next Action I can take to bring this project to completion), I can do that Next Action automatically the next time I see it instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do. (Call tire shop for prices.) With a to-do list you have to make a decision on the next action for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Actions list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose which Next Action to do now.

While on a first glance these two concepts seem like opposites they are actually complementary. The relationship between them is quite fascinating when you think about it. You can’t actually properly think about how (or next action) until you understand that what (outcome focus). If what Woolley claims is correct, in teams, a preliminary focus on the process (the how) can be detrimental for future performance. At the same time, in order to be free to really contemplate the big whys in you projects, goals and life, you need to free your mind by focusing only on what you can do. What is great is that I actually found myself creating next actions that read: Think about why X…  at beginning of projects. A doable action that is focused on the desired outcome.

I love the balance between these two concepts and I try to incorporate habits based on them into my routine. So, when do you focus on next action and when do you focus on the desired outcome or purpose?


Minus two and a half cheers for sticks and carrots – my short answer to The Economist

Photo by AdamAxon


Let’s say you were born just a little before the car started to be a really useable means of transportation. You grew up watching everybody around you use horses. In fact, you know how people, who don’t have horses, are suffering. With a horse you can do so much more. Get to places faster. Be more productive. Hell, you stick a cart to it, and you can almost do anything with it. It sure allows you to have more time to do other stuff. And you look at this new invention, the car, and you say to yourself – “well, it has its merits, but horses work for me and they are have done so well for civilization, I think I would keep with horses”.

How would you describe this type of thinking? I know human are slow to adapt to change, but looking back from our comfortable place up history’s line, this guy just seems ridiculous to us. Well, I am not sure people in the future would not look at The Economist’s Schumpeter article from January 14th titled: Driven to distraction – Two and a half cheers for sticks and carrots the same way.

In this article, The Economist goes against what they call “… [The] Eminent management theorists [That] have been dismissing payment-by-results as simplistic and mechanical ever since Frederick Taylor tried to turn it into the cornerstone of scientific management in the early 20th century”. Their wrath is turned  especially against Daniel H. Pink new book, Drive. Their claim? The system of sticks and carrots, actually works. So please, don’t bother us with all this “new-age”  Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose propaganda:

How convincing is all this? Mr Pink insists that all he is doing is bringing the light of science to bear on management: “There’s been a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” But this argument depends on a highly selective reading of the academic literature. Four reviews of research on the subject from the 1980s onwards have all come to the same conclusion: that pay-for-performance can increase productivity dramatically. A study of an American glass-installation company, for example, found that shifting from salaries to individual incentives increased productivity by 44%. More recent research on workers at a Chinese electronics factory also confirms that performance-related pay (especially the threat of losing income) is an excellent motivator (see article).

I had to re-read this paragraph several times to believe my eyes. The argument is: It works, thus it is good and we should reject anything else. Is it only me, or does it sound a little totalitaristic? Yes, Stalin’s rule worked, for a time, but was it a good thing? Personally, I don’t believe so. To me it sounds like this is focusing on the how and forgetting to ask why?

Carrots and sticks might work, but its underlining assumption is that people are jackasses (that is stubborn, stupid, willful, and unwilling to go where someone is driving him). Carrots and sticks might boost productivity, but they lead to a society where almost half the people are unhappy with their jobs. Carrots and sticks might is measurable, but great things come out of processes that we cannot measure.

It is not the first time I was shocked to see The Economist supporting the conventional wisdom. And while I don’t blindly buy into everything Dan Pinks says (as skillfully as he says it) and I do believe that his approach should be supplemented with other approaches, it hurts me to see such idolism of carrots and sticks and Taylorism.

The past will always to try to prevent the future. I don’t think this future could be prevented for long…