“Never Mistake Motion for Action”

Ernest Hemingway is credited with the quote, “never mistake motion for action.” I agree. Here are my top five reasons for being busy and keeping the status quo.

  1. Words and bluster tend to be a signal that not much will happen.
  2. Blame avoidance ensures no one is taking responsibility
  3. Fill your calendar, that way there is no room for important discussions.
  4. Have a meeting, normally that is the least productive action
  5. Let the extroverts fill all available air time

First, words are rumors. I watch the person’s feet to know what they really believe. If there are no behaviors showing a commitment to any change, that indicates nothing will really change. Don’t believe the words. Talk in generalities, if you get specific someone might understand the unintended consequences. The truism holds, actions speak louder than words. I use a strategy to get specific when I hear fluffy language. It is called the “meta model” from a book by Genie Z. LaBorde called Influencing with Integrity.” This strategy has helped me clarify issues and saved me lots of time.

Second, if all the problems are from somebody lower on the organizational structure and the solutions require someone above you in the organization to do something positive, who needs you? Do something. If it helps, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, do something else. You don’t need a title to be a leader. Everyone can contribute at their level to make systems work better. People tend not to trust those who always blame someone else. If you did it or were in collusion, admit it. I use the AAA model I found in Sam Horn’s book Tongue Fu. Acknowledge the truth, Apologize for any errors, and take Action to rectify the situation.

Third, a friend and colleague of mine, a former parent in one of the schools where I was principal, Michael Ayers (retired from 3M) once told me that the person with the busiest schedule has the most power for when to meet. Aha, he was right. Find someone who is scheduled up and they make everyone accommodate them irregardless of the urgency or importance of the issue. Apply the “Pareto Principle” where 20% of your activities account for 80% of the productivity. And, of course, the reverse is 80% of your activities account for 20% of your productivity. So, how do you reduce the 80% of the activities that don’t yield as much and increase the time spent with the 20% that do demonstrate more productive behavior?

Fourth, meetings are always identified as the biggest time waster for organizations. Here are several sources for making meetings more productive. I will speak about the best one I know. It comes from Richard Sheridan, Menlo Innovations. Rich wrote two books, Joy, Inc. and Chief Joy Officer. What they do is a standup meeting. It takes 15 minutes where people say what they are working on, what they are learning, and where they need help. It is an amazing process that I had to see to believe.

Other resources are:

  • Axelrod, Dick & Emily. (2014). Let’s Stop Meeting Like This.
  • Doyle, M. & Straus, D. (1976). How to make meetings work
  • Lencioni, P. (2004). Death by meeting

Lastly, Honor the Introverts. We need both extroverts and introverts for the best decisions. Make sure all groups who have an investment in decisions are at the table. At one school I met the student council for the first time in September. After going around the room asking for the students to introduce themselves and what were each persons’ concerns, we had a great discussion. I got lots of information in a short period of time.

Making sure everyone spoke was important and how do we get those who typically do not have a voice in the room. Thank you to Bob Chadwick who taught me to get as many voices in the room as possible and give them space to speak. Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has lots of good research about introverts. I am always grateful for those who provide resources to extend my learning.

At the end of the meeting, I asked the student council members to do this, look around the room, “who is not here?” Bring someone from a group who is not represented to the next meeting. Invite people inside the tent.

If you want to make change stick, behave your way into the change. Talks cheap. Watch the feet.


Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!