Panic is Part of the Plan

As I write this I am about to head into a long meeting. What is accomplished (or not) in this meeting is super-important. Not just normal-important, super-important. Jobs are on the line. Futures will be determined. Everyone coming to the meeting knows that this is a super-important meeting; you can tell because the participants were keen to ensure there was “enough time” for the discussion. When all is said and done, “enough time” will be about five hours.

panicBut let’s think about those five hours. We will blow an hour on reconnecting and general chit chat. Even after we get down to business, there will be an hour of recapping and perspective taking. There will be breaks, coffee, bio-breaks, and mobile phone breaks. Now we are down to three hours. Coming to some kind of formal agreement where we are all “on the record” with our perspectives will take an hour—if we are lucky. Figuring out how to implement the ideas and get the messages out will be a race to the finish. No matter what, it will be a race to the finish—even if we had eight hours.

When I was teaching, my university students would inevitably beg for “more time” to complete their research papers. I simply said, “More time won’t help you. You think it will, but it won’t.” Many literally cried at hearing this. Lots of students told me later, “You were right.” The hard-core slackers are still bitter.

As I write this blog, the Congress of the United States is fumbling towards a race to the finish where the fate of the financial world literally hangs in the balance. The deadline is October 17th. They have known this for a long time—and it will still be a nail-biter. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Congress finished the deal a week early and spared the world the drama? (Whether Congress should have been in the mess in the first place is another blog—better written by other people.)

scarcityYou know this phenomenon is pervasive. You see it happen all the time. And somehow, it seems to work. This issue is the heart of a new and wonderful book by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.  The authors leverage a wonderful mix of cutting-edge research into personal, group, and organizational psychology—as well as personal narratives that make the research findings spark. Scarcity is a powerful variable that is always operating in your mind’s eye. Is there enough time, money, people, interest, effort, food, gifts, clean laundry, gasoline, etc.?

After getting through the book I began to notice this phenomenon showing up in almost every part of my day. We are so acculturated to scarcity that it literally blows our mind when we come across situations where scarcity is not an issue. One of my favorite examples is a former-student who was diagnosed with several “learning disorders.” He was bright and talented—and to my mind—just listening to a different drummer. I asked him why he was getting a college degree and what kind of career he sought. He said, “I live on $1200 a month and I literally have everything I need. I am here just to learn things and take my time. I am in no rush. I can always work for Starbucks.” Wow: A student who was there to learn things.

As another example, I am a big fan of Lee Child’s character “Jack Reacher.” Great books; avoid the movie. In this series of books our hero is a former military cop who wanders the country like a Ronin. He carries literally nothing with him except a toothbrush and a debit card. No car. No suitcase. (He buys cheap or used clothes and tosses them away every few days—because to own anything would start a slippery slope of needing more and more “stuff”.) He is a study in the mastery of stuff and scarcity. I never realized how much this theme defines him as a character—and how much “excess” defines our society.

Now back to the meeting. Connie Gersick, a scholar in organizational behavior, has studied hundreds of meetings. She concludes that all meetings start off unfocused and generally range far and wide until a magic moment when the participants realize that time is running out and then they engage in a “mid-course correction” and roll up their sleeves and get productive. The second half of the meeting is nearly always more productive than the first. We get more productive when the pressure is on. There is a ton of research that proves again and again that tighter deadlines yield better results.

As a consultant I feel a tangible sense of relief when I tell my meeting participants “Don’t worry about wandering in your discussions or wondering how we are going to organize everything we cover in the meeting. I will handle all of that for you.” One of the biggest values we bring to our clients is helping them through the challenge of scarcity in their group decision making. It is not just a note taking function; it is an integral part of the decision process. I will often break participants into groups; give them a huge question and very little time to answer it.

waynes worldRecently one colleague facilitator (Angela Peacor) said, “You have five minutes and 52 seconds to answer this issue.” Of course someone asked, “Why five minutes and 52 seconds?” The answer was, “Because that is how long Queen’s song Bohemian Rhapsody is. If they can accomplish all that happens in that song in that amount of time—you can handle this.” And they did! It was impressive. Now, like Garth from Wayne’s World, I find myself singing Bohemian Rhapsody to myself as a way to motivate myself and create a deadline. Can I clean the kitchen in one Bohemian Rhapsody? Cue the music…

In Scarcity they note a quote from British Journalist Max Hastings who said in his book on Churchill, “An Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.” It turns out, it’s not just Englishmen. We are all counting on the scarcity effect every day. In other blogs I have extoled the use of the calendar to organize projects. June 30th will always happen. Attach hard deadlines to dates not project completion milestones. If you allow a project to simply go on until it is completed—it will slip again and again—from my experience 100% of the time. When we look at high performing organizations they always connect the “rhythm of their business” to the calendar. Everyone is always working against some kind of deadline or another.

OK. I am running late. Got to wrap this up. Bottom Line. Read Scarcity. I got through it in about 20 Bohemian Rhapsody’s. Then look at how these issues are working for you and against you in your life and your organization. See how you can leverage scarcity as a leader. Then ping me back with some of your examples and brilliance.

Now as for Congress… They may end up being the unfortunate exception to the rule…We’ll see. We have less than 20 hours now.

About Randy Harrington, Ph.D.

CEO of Extreme Arts and Sciences.
Co-Founder of Strategic Arts and Sciences.

Harrington completed his doctorate in Communication at the University of Oregon in 1992 and immediately began working as a consultant. Over the past 20 years Harrington has conducted hundreds of planning sessions and developed a wide range of change management strategies for companies large and small. His clients include companies like Microsoft, Adobe, hospitals, government agencies, and financial institutions all over the country. Harrington is also a sought after keynote speaker with a reputation for high energy provocative presentations. He is currently the CEO of Extreme Arts and Sciences and a partner with Strategic Arts and Sciences.