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Don’t Confuse Motion with Progress
Many very busy people get nothing done. Don’t be one of them.
It’s so easy to be busy. There are meetings to attend, reports to write, emails to send and planning to do. You also need to be active on social media, build your network, catch up on podcasts and read newsletters (hello!). All of that activity easily fills your day, and you are so busy it feels good. But are you productive?
One of the easiest traps to fall into is being busy but not productive. Entire companies fall into this trap, where the operations of the company become a form of theater. Everyone is running around busy, but nothing is really being accomplished, so what is the point of all the activity? From the outside it looks like a company, but it’s something else entirely.
The reason it’s easy to fall into this trap is that being busy feels like being productive. If you’re working hard with no time to spare, it’s similar to the feeling you have when you are accomplishing a lot. The main difference is the outcome: Progress grows the business, while motion keeps it in place. Mastering the difference is an important skill, since it enables you to prioritize effectively.
So, how do you tell the difference between motion and progress?
Activities that are internal to the business are motion. These include:
Implementing new tools
Implementing new processes
Building a new report
Attending regular meetings
While they might be important to keep the business running, they aren’t growing the business. In fact, you could do these things all day long and the business could be shrinking while you do them. These things are necessary but not sufficient for success.
Activities that affect your position in the market are progress. These include:
Adding new customers
Improving customer satisfaction
Hiring new people
You might be surprised to see layoffs on that list, as we usually think about progress as positive. Layoffs are painful (see Layoffs are Horrible), but often necessary to ensure the cost structure of the business is sustainable. You cannot cut costs to grow, but if your costs are well ahead of growth then cuts can help ensure the business survives until it can grow again. Progress is not always positive, and it doesn’t always feel good.
The activities that make progress are always the hardest, and it can be tempting to complete the easier internal tasks. It’s easier to attend an internal status meeting than sell a new customer! Your best defense is to ensure your metrics don’t reward that kind of shortcut (see Second Order Metrics). In fact, all of your metrics should be measuring progress.
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There is an interesting gray area which makes the trap even more insidious. For example, is releasing new product features motion or progress? If the features improve end user engagement or customer conversions then yes, it is progress! If the features don’t affect usage at all (or make it worse), it is just motion. It’s the impact that your actions have that make them productive, not the actions themselves.
Another gray area are conferences. If you go to a conference and generate a dozen customer leads, that is progress. If you go to a conference to attend some talks and see some folks, it’s motion. You might learn new things at that conference, but until you act on that knowledge and those actions have a real impact it is not progress. If you’re a new college graduate this is a hard adjustment to make, since in college learning is progress.
What do these gray areas tell us? Just because our intention is to make progress, it doesn’t mean that is what we do. Our actions, regardless of their intention, are measured by the impact they actually have. This can be frustrating since we might work very hard on things we think will have impact, only to have none. Success means having more of our actions have an impact than not, and in doing so make more progress than motion. Your job is to make sure you are choosing the actions most likely to make progress.
As leaders we need to make sure our teams are being productive, and not waste time on the theater of activity. While it’s not always easy to tell the difference, having a ruthless focus on impact will help. What impact are you going to have today?
"Don't confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn't make any progress." - Alfred Armand Montapert