Make Something Happen Before Lunch

Bob Sevier

Bob Sevier

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Irving Paul “Swifty” Lazar was an American talent agent and dealmaker who represented such megastars as Lauren Bacall, Truman Capote, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, Madonna, and Walter Matthau.

He attributed much of his success as an agent to a simple mantra: Make something happen before lunch.

The idea of moving quickly is a foreign concept to most of higher education (and frankly, most organizations). Let me give you two recent examples.

I had been working with a client for three months trying to get to a decision point on a particular issue. In October he said, “Look, the holidays are right around the corner. Let’s table the discussion until after the first of the year.”

Holidays? What holidays? Columbus Day? Halloween? Since the client wasn’t Canadian I was pretty sure we weren’t talking about Thanksgiving.

With a straight face he said, “Christmas break.”

Here’s another. I’m working with a small liberal arts college on the East Coast. They want us to help identify new academic programs for them. It has been 11 months and they are still trying to determine the five potential programs to have us assess.

Mind you, this isn’t a decision about which programs to launch. Rather, it is a decision about which programs to assess with the idea of identifying one or more to consider launching at a later date.

Since it has taken them nearly a year to decide what programs to assess, I can only imagine how long it will take for them to decide which program to launch. I’m sensing Zager and Evans here.[1]

Finally, a third example. At a recent AMA conference, a VP for marketing said to me, “We’ve haven’t forgotten your proposal. We’re still thinking about it.” Well, I had forgotten the proposal. When I looked through my files I realized it was from more than a year ago.

I think higher education’s “let’s take our sweet time” approach to decision-making and implementation is unbelievably dangerous. It steals time. It squanders energy. It depletes momentum. And perhaps worst of all, it gives you a sense that something worthwhile is happening when it really isn’t.

With an eye toward helping create a critical sense of organizational momentum, I want to offer 10 ways to reduce decision and implementation cycle times.

  1. Focus on, and communicate, the concrete benefits of having made the decision or implemented the action.
  2. Reduce the number of people involved in the process. Concentrate on people with talent and not people with titles.
  3. Set three specific dates: 1) a deadline for gathering information; 2) a deadline for deciding; and 3) a deadline for implementation.
  4. Realize that consensus is a false prophet. It never occurs. Instead, shoot for functional consensus—getting enough people to agree.
  5. Calculate, if possible, the costs of not deciding, or delaying a decision. Make the costs clear and the pain real.
  6. Focus on quadrant 1; those items that are relatively easy to do but have a big pay-off for the institution.[2]
  7. Create and maintain a sense of urgency.
  8. Don’t overthink it.
  9. Commit yourself to the decision you have chosen and disregard the ideas/options. Don’t rethink.
  10. Realize that pretty good done is really good.

Let me close with two final thoughts. One of my favorite engagements is helping schools identify their sources of competitive advantage.[3] I was working with one client that has had more than a decade of superior performance.

They always hit their numbers. Record enrollment. Record tuition revenue. Record fundraising. At a senior staff meeting I asked the president why he thought they were successful. He listed a handful of characteristics, but one surprised me: “We make decisions quickly. We view that as a source of competitive advantage.”

Finally, let’s talk about Russel Honore’. He’s a retired lieutenant general who coordinated military relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Frustrated with how long it was taking to make things happen, he yelled at his staff, “You’re looking at your calendars and I’m looking at my wristwatch.”

I think it’s time to toss out our calendars.

Solum fac id.[4]

Interested in more discussion on this topic? Take a look at a précis I wrote on decision-making for the Center for Strategic Change at George Fox University. Here’s a link:

[1]This is a not-so-oblique reference to the Zager and Evans classic “In the Year 2525.” They wrote the song in 1962 while attending Nebraska Wesleyan University. They recorded the song in 1968−69.

[2]A pay-off matrix has four quadrants (I don’t know why I said that. “Four” and “quadrants” are synonymous. Anyway, the four quadrants are: 1) Easy to do, big pay-off; 2) Hard to do, big pay-off; 3) Easy to do, small pay-off; and 4) Hard to do, small-pay-off). Focus on quadrant 1. Avoid quadrants 3 and 4.

[3]See Michael Porter, Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance.

[4]Think “Nike”

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