The Less You Do…

When I started practicing jujitsu, my sensei would teach a technique and then tell us not to over-control our partners when we attempted to do it. We’d all nod and successfully fail to execute the technique. My sensei would demonstrate it again, and we’d grab our partners and attempt the throw, jerking and hauling, and adjusting position until our partners completely failed to leave the ground. Sensei would demonstrate the technique yet again, and eventually we might notice that he really didn’t do very much. There was none of this jerking and adjusting and fiddling around. Rather, he’d start the technique and then just wait while the person he was doing it to reacted. He seemed to be not exerting any control or effort at all, yet his partners just fell down.

What my sensei had learned, and the rest of us had not, was patience. We would start a technique and when we didn’t get immediate results, we would assume it wasn’t working and try to fix it. Our attempts to “fix” the technique were, in fact, the reason it wasn’t working. How rapidly a technique works depends on the specific technique and the person you are doing it to: a taller person simply takes longer to go over your shoulder than a shorter person. A lock takes longer to run through a long, flexible body than a short, tight one. By not giving those bodies time to react, we were actually negating the effects of the techniques as fast as we started them.

I find a very similar problem playing out in the work place: a manager tells his group to get something done and before they’ve really had a chance to react, he’s running around exhorting them or trying to figure out why they aren’t moving. In fact, they were moving. Now that he’s in the way, they’re not moving any more. It takes time for a group to process information and then figure out the best ways to move forward. That critical planning time is essential to the group’s success. In short, the group needs time to react.

When the leader starts running around, he is effectively negating the progress of the group just as beginning students in jujitsu negate the progress of their techniques. What is worse, though, is that the manager’s frequent interventions themselves become the focus of attention. Instead of concentrating on the work that needs to get done, everyone is paying attention to the interventions and trying to change course each time something new is said or some new instruction is given. As people become steadily more frustrated, the quality of information processing only declines.

In one company, a particular VP had some issues with the way managers in his department were working. He instructed them to make changes, even brought in coaches to help them with the changes. Each time the coaches showed up, he had a different critical problem that they had to focus on “right now!” The coaching ended up having little consistency from one day to the next. The net result was that the company spent a good deal of money and got very little to show for it.

So how do you avoid the trap of too many interventions?

Start by defining what your results should look like. In jujitsu, this is often pretty easy, usually involving a person lying on the ground. In a business environment, it may be a bit more complicated but is still eminently doable. It just takes some up front investments in time and energy.

As much as possible, define the steps you will take to get those results. What are they and how do they connect to the results? Sometimes you can’t draw a perfectly clear path, so you need to make sure you include steps to evaluate and adjust course as needed.

Then determine how you’ll know you’re making progress. What things will happen that will give you early feedback that you are on course or off course? Having some clue about both is important: if no warning signs are appearing, you don’t want to mess around. Depending on what you are doing, the first signs of success may take a while.

This brings us to our next point: how long will it take to get results? Everyone wants results Right Now, but rarely does the universe cooperate. Indeed, as we’ve already seen, the more we demand Right Now, the longer things end up taking. It’s important, therefore, to consider how long the first steps will take. Of course, if you really want to make success more likely, make sure you start with some easy steps that can be completed quickly and will build momentum. Once you start succeeding, it’s easier to keep going.

Like in jujitsu, it often really is the case that the less you do, the more you get.

Comments (1)

George KlemicAugust 19th, 2015 at 2:42 pm

Great thoughts, Steve. In the early 1980’s KDK had Tai Chi instruction, I believe on Saturday mornings. The instructor, an old master from mainland China said to me one day: if you want to learn faster, you have to go slower. My Tao instructor had said something very similar. It only took me about 20 years to realize how right they were.

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