December 13, 2011

Why People Do (and Don't) Take Action - Part One

If you think about what it takes to achieve - from the most complex strategic plan involving a multinational organisation to a single request - what it comes down to is very simple. Taking the right action with integrity.

Integrity as in whole and complete, not in a moralistic sense.

I promise to write a 400 word summary of yesterday's meeting and have it on your desk by noon. If I do that then I have taken action with integrity. If I don't, I haven't. Simple.

But human beings aren't so simple. We are programmed to move towards entropy or randomness. We live in a perpetual state of decline. From the moment we formulate any plan and put it into action, we are bound to move away from integrity. It's not bad or wrong that we do this, it's just what it is to be human. The more people involved in any plan and the more complex the issues involved, the more likely we are to move towards entropy.

We say we'll start the meeting at 9:00am and even if we start at ten seconds past, it is indicative of a move away from integrity.

Before you take up a battle cry at that last statement. Let me explain something important here. 

I am not advocating living a pedantic life where you start every meeting on the stroke of the promised hour. It's not how human beings operate. Trying to live and work that way is actually exhausting and counter-productive. Living in a state of the highest level of integrity with massive action allows for evolution and breakthroughs, but it is unsustainable for any length of time and impossible in a complex system of many human beings. Stuff happens and you need to adjust.

Now, when formulating a plan, it is important to do so with a high degree of integrity. The degree to which you do will be directly correlated to the level of success you are likely to achieve. If you engage in all the critical thinking, consider as many obstacles and issues as possible and take the time to plan accordingly, you maximise your probability of success. Makes sense? Of course!

However, as you start to move from formulating and planning to start-up and so on, integrity does rise and drop. Actions will be taken, or they won't, or not exactly at the promised or planned time.

I didn't get the 400 word summary to you at noon, it was actually 700 words and you had it by 12:30pm. At 10:00am I received an urgent email that had to take priority over the report. However, the extra half hour wasn't critical and the extra 300 words provided important insights. I communicated to you the issues and you knew to expect a longer report at the later time. You also appreciated the added information.

As long as the level of integrity stays above the line, you pretty much will succeed. Again, your success will be dependent on the level of action with integrity that you and your people maintain.

While it's unrealistic to aim for the highest level of integrity at the greatest level of action, you do want to maximise your time in flow.

Peak performance - or flow - is that state of existence Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified where we are totally immersed in what we are doing and our emotions are positively channeled to the task at hand. When we are in flow, we operate at our best and are able to sustain this level of action for long periods of time without exhausting ourselves because we have found the right balance of challenge and stress for our ability. We are working at something we are aligned with and enjoy so are highly motivated to succeed. Flow occurs when what we are doing is congruent, or true to our values, talents and and interests. It is a sustainable level of high productivity that allows for great success. And it feels great!

Think about something you achieved lately and notice that the above really makes sense.

So, with that in mind....why don't people take the actions they know they need to take, even when they say they want to take them?

Stay tuned.

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