There are two common problems where immature or dysfunctional governance results in poor performance. When good governance is lacking, either decision makers:
1) Over-think and underperform or
2) Under-think and underperform
In the first case, people are seemingly paralyzed (often in a state referred to as “analysis paralysis”) and are hesitant to make a decision and so the organization stagnates—in a state of perpetual inaction—and underperforms.
In the second case, people don’t think enough about what they are doing—they lack adequate mechanisms for planning, analysis, vetting, and general due diligence—and are too quick to just do something, anything—whether or not it’s the “right” thing—and again they end up underperforming.
Both situations have negative consequences on the organization: In one, people are over-thinking and therefore not doing enough and on the other hand, people are under-thinking and therefore end up doing the wrong things.
Instead what we need is a rational sequence of think, do, think do, think, do—where actions are regular, frequent, and driven by a reflection of what’s occurred, the entry of new inputs, an analysis of alternatives, a vetting process, and the point of decision-making.
This is the essence of good governance and the most basic balance of thoughts and deeds, where thinking leads to action and action feeds back to the further thinking and so on.
In it’s more expanded form, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the father of quality management, founded the Shewart cycle or PDCA (based on the scientific method)—where planning, doing, checking, and acting is a constant cycle of action and reaction:
Here we can see that good governance leads to continuous momentum from planning (thinking) and doing (performing) to a robust feedback mechanism that includes checking on results and acting to analyze and improve on those.
A recent article in MIT Sloan Management review, Spring 2010 called “Learning When To Stop Momentum,” by Barton and Sutcliffe, provides similar lessons from the perspective of overcoming dysfunctional momentum.
Dysfunctional momentum: “occurs when people continue to work towards an original goal without pausing to recalibrate or examine their processes, even in the face of cues that they should change course.”
Dysfunctional momentum fits into the category described above of under-thinking and underperforming. If we don’t “pause and recalibrate,” (i.e. think before further action) we are not going to perform very effectively.
The authors recommend that we do the following to cure dysfunctional momentum (under-thinking):
1) Be humble—“be confidant in your skills but humble about the situation. Even the most experienced experts cannot know how a dynamic situation will unfold.”
2) Encourage skepticism—“it is important that everyone’s voice be heard.”
3) Seek out bad news—“use the acquired information as an opportunity to learn.”
4) Be available—“interruptions force us to reconsider whether we really know what is going on and how well the present actions are working.”
5) Communicate frequently—“face to face is the richest medium for communication because…it conveys multiple cues that allow for a range of meaning, and it provides the opportunity for rapid feedback.”
To me, we can also cure dysfunctional paralysis (over-thinking) by tempering the prior recommendations with the following ones:
1) Be bold—be willing to understand the requirements, the options, vet them, and make a decision and move forward.
2) Encourage conviction—hear everyone’s opinions, thoughts, and ideas and then have conviction and take a stand.
3) Seek a decision—get the good news and the bad news, put it into a business case or other presentation for decision makers to act on.
4) Be discrete—manage time with discretion following the phrase from Ecclesiastes that “there is a time for everything”—a time for thinking and a time for doing.
5) Communicate with purpose—communication is critical and often the best communication is directed ultimately toward some decision or action to further some advancement on the subject in question.
The article summarizes both perspectives this way: Dysfunctional momentum occurs not necessarily because people are ignorant, risk-seeking or careless, but because they are human and have as much trouble in controlling momentum as they do in surmounting inertia.”
To address the issues of over- and under-thinking problems, we need to establish policy, processes, structures, and tools for good governance that support people in thinking through problems and making decisions on a sound course of action—leading us to a continuous and healthy cycle of thoughts and deeds, planning and action.