“After all is said and done, more is said than done,” Aesop may have written. Or maybe he only meant to write it. (More)

Saying and Doing, Part III: Narrowing the Gap (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at the gap between saying and doing. Thursday we started with why leaders so often promise more than they deliver. Yesterday we looked at followers who act as if a deadline is simply “when I need my excuse ready.” Today we consider how to improve the said-to-done ratio.

“Well done is better than well said”

Several online quote sites attribute “After all is said and done, more is said than done” to Aesop, but they don’t cite a fable or other work. Other sites attribute that pithy saying to the famous and ever-quotable Unknown, and some even include Unknown’s first name, Author.

That last site also includes this delightful Italian proverb:

Between saying and doing many a pair of shoes is worn out.

And of course there’s Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in the 1737 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac:

Well done is better than well said.

Alas, Franklin’s phrase – like the others – is merely “well said.” Trotting out a clever quip about the gap between saying and doing is rarely enough to close that gap.

The Planning Fallacy

Often the gap exists not because we do too little, but because we say too much, even when we should know better. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes his experience with a team that set out to write a course curriculum for Israeli high schools. After a year of work, he asked the team to estimate how much longer they thought it would take to complete the project. The team members’ estimates were about two more years.

He then asked how long other teams usually take to finish a curriculum. One member researched it and found most teams took at least seven years to write a curriculum. So Dr. Kahneman asked, again, how much longer they would need to finish. And they still agreed it would be about two more years.

In fact it took them six more years – totaling the seven years teams usually needed – and by the time they finished the Israeli government had decided to drop that course from the curriculum.

This was a classic example of the planning fallacy, and more specifically base rate neglect and the illusion of skill. They knew most teams needed seven years to write a curriculum (the base rate) but they overrated ‘inside factors’ (what they thought they knew about their skills) and underrated the ‘outside factors’ inherent in that complex and difficult project.

Oh, and those topics were in the course outline. Dr. Kahneman and his team knew about the planning fallacy, base rate neglect, and the illusion of skill … and still fell into those very mistakes in underestimating their completion date.

“Expect the unexpected”

That’s why project management experts teach the concept of cushion time:

The concept of “cushion time” is a part of project planning. The simple assumption is that things can and will go wrong. A flawless execution of a project is the exception rather than the rule. The concept of cushion time is the extra time that must be budgeted that will take unforeseen contingencies into account. Worker absenteeism, weather problems, equipment breakdowns or other snags can and will cause a project to work out less than perfectly.

When considering cushion time, many variables need to be listed and analyzed in detail. Primarily, the sort of workers that will be assigned to the task is the source for problems. Inexperienced and unmotivated workers should force you to include much cushion time for any project. If they are unfamiliar with the equipment, then this too should be included. Even variables as simple as travel time need to be included, since a project that is running behind can be destroyed by a single traffic jam.

Project management blogger Suba Lakshminarasimhan agrees:

Expect the unexpected, is the mantra that the project manager should always keep in mind. There are instances where an emergency in a team member’s personal life, a few technical problems, or some organizational issues come up unexpectedly, as an intrusion to complete your projects as planned. Always have a cushion time while planning your project phases to cope up with such scenarios. This will protect your projects from ruin.

So before you scold your team (or yourself) for doing too little, consider that you (or your team leader) may have said too much.

“Going in the right direction”

Procrastination is also partly a function of personality. Regulatory mode theory proposes that pursuing a goal involves both assessment and locomotion – roughly: thinking and doing – and psychologist Antonio Pierro explains that individuals may be more prone to one or the other:

Research has generally supported the notion that locomotion and assessment are largely orthogonal regulatory modes. The independence of the two modes allows for a possible predominance of one mode over the other. Generally, assessment should lead to greater consideration of possible routes to goal pursuit, guiding the self in specified directions. However, a person operating predominately in the assessment mode may engage in excessive musing, always looking but never leaping. Generally, locomotion should improve the performance of many tasks through its emphasis on doing something, increasing attainment. However, a person operating predominately in the locomotion mode may engage in many activities without any particular end in mind, essentially “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” or “leaping” without first “looking.” Optimal self-regulation should usually utilize both modes of the self-regulation in order to constrain each other’s downsides, in order to “go” (locomotion) “in the right direction” (assessment) rather than going just anywhere (insufficient assessment) or reflecting forever and going nowhere (insufficient locomotion). “Going in the right direction” requires that locomotion and assessment work together. [Citations omitted]

“Would you like some help?”

As we saw yesterday, the impulse to get lost in assessment – “always looking but never leaping” – increases if you’re attempting a task for the first time, or if you’ve had a bad experience with a similar task. That’s especially true if you care about doing the task well. A team member who is procrastinating may not be lazy or unmotivated. That person may be very committed to the project’s ideals, yet unsure of what to do, afraid to make a mistake, and afraid to ask for help.

If you’re a team leader, the best approach to a procrastinating member is often to ask “Would you like some help?” Simply knowing that someone who knows what to do is willing to explain it again – or tag along, ready to offer hints – may be just the nudge a procrastinator needs to get from assessment into locomotion.

Conversely, if you’re procrastinating because you’re afraid to make a mistake, ask for help. Good leaders – and good peers – appreciate the chance to teach and nurture, and that also builds more cohesive teams.

We can never completely close the gap between saying and doing. Aesop, or Mr. Unknown, were right about that. But we can narrow that gap … by saying less and helping more.

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Happy Saturday!