Lee Jun-fan, better known as Bruce Lee, was a martial arts instructor and founder of the Jeet Kune Do (JKD) art form. Many consider Lee to be one of the most influential martial artists of all time, and his work as an actor and film director is credited with changing the way Asians were portrayed in American films. But his philosophy transcended the art of combat. Lee believed, “If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.” Along this line of reasoning, one of the main principles of JKD was grounded on the fluidity of the mind, that being, the ability to act when confronted with unfamiliar circumstances. This was not to say that he advocated impulsive action—rather, he argued that the mind should be tranquil. It was in that state of calm that an understanding would be brought to bear so that appropriate action could be taken. Lee argued that we must strive for balance—equal parts thinking and doing.
Lee’s perspective reminds me of an Italian proverb, “Tra due e farsi guastano scarpe assai.” Translated it means, “Between saying and doing, many a pair of shoes is worn out.” Lee’s balanced approach demonstrates that as important as planning and assessing may be, executing—taking action—is equally critical. For managers, it is simply not practical to think through every conceivable side of an issue before following through. Managers who fail to act can leave the organization vulnerable to an assortment of problems. At best, their inaction can result in missed opportunities, and at worst, it could lead to financial ramifications and public-relations exposure that remain with the institution for years. William Feather, the American publisher and author, understood this, remarking, “Conditions are never just right. People who delay action until all factors are favorable do nothing.” When it comes to managing the court—an institution that traditionally prides itself with worrying its time on the decisions it renders—what is the right balance between thoughtful contemplation and timely action?
There was an overcast, but with just enough sun that would occasionally break through the clouds, it was the sort of day fickle on what it was deciding to be—a cool, end-of-summer day fit for shorts and a sweatshirt or just warm enough that you could get away with one last respite from the workweek on the beach before the reign of the early fall settled in. I guessed that it would be the former and met Toni at a small, locally owned restaurant wearing a University of American Samoa Law School sweatshirt. Although it was known for their seafood, the establishment also had other seasonal dishes.
As I walked in, Toni had already been seated and greeted me, “Nice shirt.”
“Thanks,” I replied.
I had the Boardwalk Lobster Roll that was served with celery, apples, and chives, and Toni had the fennel-dusted tuna with cannellini beans drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. It wasn’t long before we were done when Toni recommended that we take our Tahitian herbal tea to go so that we could “stroll and sip” and enjoy the last days of summer however uncooperative it was being. I had not had the tea before, but Toni’s suggestion rarely disappointed. It was a blend of tropical fruit that was discerned differently by our palates—the papaya was what seemed to me to be most prevalent, while Toni felt that the zest of the citrus was most pronounced.
Our walk was not different than the hundreds we had before. Toni rarely spoke of herself, even when asked. When you did, she had an artful way of redirecting the conversation so that it centered on you. To the extent she did speak about her own experiences, she structured it around providing guidance or otherwise answering a question you were pondering. And so our discussion, like so many before, carried on in the same adroit fashion that best characterized her.
“So, what’s the latest in life and work?” Toni asked.
“Same ole, same ole. Just coming back from vacation a couple of weeks ago, so I had some catching up to do.”
“Are you all caught up?”
“I am, with the exception of a report that I keep coming back to. How about you, what’s the latest?” I asked.
“Not much—time is not as much of a constraint for me these days. Having said that, as you grow older you’ll find the fact that you wish you had more of it doesn’t change. With a little luck and a lot of planning, you can hopefully spend more of it doing the things you love.”
“That’s the plan,” I replied.
“I don’t have the same important report you’ve been laboring over sapping my time, so I planted a small tomato garden this summer.”
“Ha—that sounds wonderful.”
“It has been—so what’s the hold-up on this report? It seems to me that you would’ve preferred planting a hectare of tomatoes.”
“Maybe not a hectare,” I joked.
“That’s encouraging. Seriously, what’s the delay? It’s not like you to procrastinate, and it seems like you’re dragging your feet on this.”
“True—it’s not like me to procrastinate, but I find myself putting other less important work ahead of it because of the thoroughness that I’m seeking. So, it kind of self-perpetuates—acquiring more data and then getting overwhelmed by it all that I start moving less arduous tasks up. As I eventually make my way through it, I find that I feel the need to keep asking folks for different data points that I think I’ll need to consider in making my final recommendations.”
“Have you received that information?” Toni asked.
“I have—and it’s made the file on that corner of my desk much higher,” I joked.
“Well, you do realize that it’s not going to get any smaller using your current approach.”
“I do, but it’s not just about reviewing all the documentation and summarizing it into a presentable report, it’s also ensuring that I’ve considered every possible angle that could potentially impact what I put forth.”
“Excuses,” Toni remarked plainly.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not complicated. You’re delaying the work and ultimately the decisions that rests upon it because of the off chance that you haven’t thought of some data point that may change one or more of your recommendations—which haven’t been made yet I may add. It’s the mentality of what Italians would reference as ‘Lasciare oggi che domani arrivera.’”
“My Italian is a little rusty although it sounds nice.”
“It may sound nice, but it’s not good. It literally means ‘leave today that tomorrow will come.’”
“So, it’s basically about putting things off until the next day.”
“Yes—except that ‘tomorrow’ never comes. It’s perpetual. Your thoroughness is admirable, but there’s a tipping point—which I believe you’ve reached. But I think you know that already.”
“If I were being honest . . . probably.”
“So, don’t kid yourself—keep moving and get it done.”
“You understand, though, that I may submit it and the judge may ask about something that I didn’t think of and didn’t include.”
“So, let her ask. You can address it at that time. If it makes you feel better, as a final measure before you submit it, discuss the issue with a trusted colleague to get her thoughts on your analysis. Just make sure that you give her a short window to get back to you.”
“There are a couple of folks that come to mind.”
“Good. And let me save you the suspense—it’ll never be perfect. The perfect—my friend—is the enemy of the good.”
“Right,” I agreed.
“The perfectionist and the procrastinator are different sides of the same coin. Making something good generates progress—as in good, followed by better, followed by excellent. Waiting until it’s perfect will often mean just that—waiting. And there’s a cost to that as well—most often an opportunity cost. You don’t need to have it all figured out to move forward.”
“Even on important things?”
“Very important things like the report you’re trying to finish?” Toni asked rhetorically. “Yes—and to quote Mignon McLaughlin, remember that just like trivial matters, ‘important things can be put off till tomorrow; they can be put off forever, or not at all.’”
No one is perfect—which means that putting off decisions until circumstances are “just right” is a losing proposition. Seeking perfection and the procrastination that goes along with it can easily lead to endless indecision. Toni would advocate following a decision-making process based on the most relevant information available, together with sound advice from a trusted colleague. To that end, the manager should not be overly concerned about submitting the initial proposal. Instead, the key is to draft it in such a way (not perfect, but good enough) that allows the process to continue to move forward. In Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, Max H. Bazerman identifies a six-point process he referred to as “System 2” thinking in decision making:
- Define the problem—identify the crux issue at hand and don’t mistake the symptoms for the problem itself.
- Identify the criteria—pinpoint what is relevant.
- Weight the criteria—determine what is the most to least important criteria.
- Generate alternatives—enumerate what would be the most practical possibilities without squandering time.
- Rate each alternative on each criterion—to the extent possible, contemplate how things may transpire in the future to rate the available options.
- Compute the optimal decision—determine which solution is the best with the lowest possible investment of time, effort, emotion, and capital.
This process provides the manager with a rational “optimal” choice given the information on hand—not the perfect solution. Using this method also helps the manager’s work process move forward in some logical fashion.
To ensure that the manager’s personal workflow is not deferred unnecessarily, Francesco Cirillo, author of The Pomodoro Technique, provides a rudimentary system to minimize the impact of internal and external distractions on the manager’s workflow. Cirillo’s scheme can be coupled with Bazerman’s decision-making paradigm to set priorities and keep track of how one’s work is being apportioned throughout the workday. Cirillo’s technique, while relatively simple, requires practice and discipline, particularly for those managers who have a strong tendency to procrastinate. The technique involves structuring your workday in 25-minute sessions on a given activity (without interruption) followed by a short 5-minute break. Each 25-minute session is one “pomodoro” (Italian for tomato). After completing four “pomodori,” the manager takes a longer, 15-to-30-minute break to rest and recharge.
As simple as the technique is, it requires that the manager resist the desire to address an “immediate” need (such as the urge to check email, make a phone call, or check in on staff) that interrupts the pomodoro session at hand. Cirillo calls these distractions “internal interruptions,” and they generally disguise the subject’s fear of not being able to finish what she is working on in the time and manner in which she seeks to complete it. These distractions can take precedence, however unplanned, and divert the manager’s time and focus. So how does the manager mitigate those internal interruptions from her workflow? Cirillo notes that when these distractions are encountered, the subject must either immediately end the session and save the work so that it can be recommenced later, or the other activity must be recorded and postponed (using Cirillo’s strategy of inform, negotiate, schedule, or call back) until the pomodoro session is completed. While some interruptions present circumstances that require the manager to temporarily abandon the present work being done, not all distractions rise to that level of importance, and Cirillo’s technique helps in making that distinction.
Having a good decision-making paradigm such as the one offered by Bazerman provides the court manager with a rational approach in making her choices. It allows her to progress through in logical fashion with the information at her disposal while being fully aware that that information may change in the future, causing the end product to be redressed. Such a model in tandem with Cirillo’s pomodoro technique helps keep the manager on task as she strives to move forward. It recognizes that in the day-to-day business of the managing the courts, interruptions do emerge and she should not neglect them, but it allows her to review them objectively in deciphering whether the instant task should be put on hold. Together, it provides a good balance for the manager so that she can contemplate action before proceeding, but not so long until there’s a hole in her shoe.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at email@example.com.