Time to fathom the depths

Is it just me, being one of the last of the baby-boomers?  Am I just out-dated at my age in this age?   Or, is anyone else worried by the lack of depth around the serious and important topics, projects, and themes in our work lives, and indeed in wider society?  Don’t we all need to spend more time to do things properly?

I have just watched on TV the crew of a high-speed RNLI lifeboat slow down to almost a stop to take depth soundings as they enter a narrow and dangerous cove.  Yes, their mission is urgent, but unless they stop to fathom the depth their urgent mission itself is in jeopardy.  This got me thinking: how little time is spent fathoming the depths of complex and challenging business changes before we speed ahead at full throttle


We used to be warned about “Paralysis by Analysis” leading to procrastination and inaction, but now it seems that analysis itself is paralysed and any half-considered idea, plan or action will do.  Even for complex challenges and objectives, being seen to be busy is more important than preparing to be productive, and spending sufficient time to do a good job.  Yes, sometimes it is good to just get started and press on with things  - I am very good at over-analysing my writing ideas and I know it puts the brakes on just getting something out there - and doing something always feels better than doing nothing, but how often can that something be better with some proper thought, consideration, planning - and the right amount of effort.

In this social media age, we all seem to scroll through and pass on without fathoming the depths; we look, but rarely spend the time needed to see, and not seeing means we cannot really understand, appreciate, properly comprehend, and do a proper job of the task in hand.  For me, this is not a good thing (unless we are only looking at pictures of cats, and then moving on as quick as possible is to be applauded). 

I have had this lack of depth concern for some time now and the lifeboat feature on TV just brought it to the front of my mind.  For some time I have been concerned that, in wider society, even serious TV and radio news programmes are constrained by typical, shallow, two-minute interviews on serious, often very serious, topics.  Very few (including myself) read any in-depth analysis in heavy-weight newspapers these days,  Maybe, just maybe, for most people, and for most of the time, it is just about acceptable to leave the big societal and macro-economic issues to the technocrats and managerial politicians (although I wished people on both sides of the BREXIT argument had tried a bit harder with their analysis).  What worries me is when this lack of willingness to engage in the detail, to properly understand, creeps into the work environment.  Too often, and increasingly it seems to me, complex business challenges, issues, projects, and changes do not receive sufficient attention from leaders and managers who find themselves spread far too thin across ambitious, but poorly understood change plans.  Is it any wonder the dots are not connected?  Should we be surprised when the money is spent, but desired outcomes are late or not achieved at all? 

When I was at the other end of my career in management consulting, we would take pride in our methods and plans to fully consider the projects and changes we were working on.  Indeed, our clients would expect, scrutinise, and participate in the detail.  Today, there is more (and welcome) focus on the required outcomes, but whilst understanding desired outcomes is of course extremely important, this should not be at the exclusion of proper understanding of the how, who, what, and when that is needed to get there - and indeed is the outcome really worth it, and can it really be achieved? 

Do not get me wrong here, I am not suggesting that everything needs to be fully understood, planned and costed before we take any action - I am a great fan of the Lean-Agile approach.  It is often impossible to fully predict a complex route to an outcome and truly recognising the massive cone of uncertainty at the start of complex projects and changes is a good thing.  Adopting Agile practices is a great help in such circumstances - if they are properly considered and really appreciated by leaders and managers.  I love the idea of Agile Minimal Viable Products and Services - but only where they really are viable, and an assessment of what viability means has been made.   Regardless of the right approach, leaders and managers need to engage in the complexity that is the reality of business change today, both at the outset and during the progression of their key initiatives and projects, and if that means somethings will have to wait while other things are done properly, so be it, but let’s do more things properly! 

Yes, we can achieve great things, but only if we understand the true complexity of the necessary change and then take time address that complexity.  Yes, we can learn and adapt as we go in an Agile manner, but only if we take the time to analyse, learn from our experience, and adapt. 

Is there any hope for detail in this fast-paced, attention diverting world of ours?  Well, I am hoping that Twitter’s recent doubling of their maximum tweet length to 280 characters is perhaps a small, a so very small, sign of improvement in the appetite for a bit of detail, but I am not really feeling very optimistic.  Without more time to fathom the depths, I am expecting more good ships to run aground. 

But maybe it is just me.  What do you think?

-- By Colin Whalen, Director at LintonWharfe, and member of Consult Yorkshire

This article first appeared on Medium
Photo credit and thanks to Alexander Andrews on Unsplash