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The Onward March of Folly

The Onward March of Folly

Despite all of mankind’s technological progress, some patterns seem rooted in human behavior. One of these is the tendency to grab for short-term gains and ignore the longer-term consequences, even when those are almost entirely predictable.

This attitude has been illustrated this week by the announcement from the Ford Motor Company of still more lay-offs, plant closures, and buy-outs of workers’ contracts. For years, Ford’s cars have been becoming less popular; so much so that Ford has been losing heavily on the operation of its car divisions. You would think this would be something the management would have made a high priority and tackled long before firms like Toyota and Hyundai could establish strong positions in the US market. However, there was some tempting, low-hanging fruit, in the shape of truck and SUV sales, that seems to have distracted management with the promise of strong, short-term profits, even while they more or less ignored the clear but long-term issue of how to make Ford cars competitive again.

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With management asleep at the wheel, its eyes fixed on the massive profits Ford made on sales of trucks and SUVs, no one considered what might occur if anything happened to those cash cows. Along comes a huge increase in gas prices in the United States. Now Ford’s gas-guzzlers no longer seem attractive to consumers and sales plummet. What had been merely a problem—how to counter Toyota’s rise to market-leader in cars—now became a crisis. Hence the panic measures to cut costs and dump non-performing assets, while Ford shareholders have to absorb the news that there will be no dividend and the company is unlikely to return to profitability before 2009, if then.

Of course, some people love a crisis, mostly because it gives them an immediate “high” of excitement. I wrote about such “Adrenaline Junkies” earlier this week: people who live their whole lives in a state of permanent crisis, even creating them if they don’t arrive naturally. The post produced an extremely perceptive comment from one reader, who pointed out the following paradox. If you exercise foresight to deal with a problem before it becomes pressing, people see what you have done as obvious. If you wait until the problem reaches crisis proportions, then step in to solve it, you are a hero. So if you want to be noticed, the answer is to avoid using foresight or planning to head off any long-term consequences, at least openly. Wait until people feel real pain, then step in as their savior.

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Short-termism isn’t the only source of today’s rapidly advancing folly. Another is the fashion for setting objectives based on statistics instead of understanding. In “Occam’s Razor”, I pointed out that a good part of the overwork and pressure that infects business today comes from people either collecting data to satisfy this organizational mania for measurement, or facing objectives that have been produced by statistically illiterate bosses. To deal with it, I proposed “Carmine Coyote’s Cutthroat”—a maxim that reads: “Do not invent unnecessary measurements and statistics to manage anything.” I don’t know whether it will catch on, but it would save people from a great deal of heartache and anxiety if it did.

By the end of the week, my concern with human folly, especially among otherwise intelligent leaders, shifted to the manipulation inherent in today’s macho styles of management. In “Integrity Versus Manipulation,” I tried to draw attention to the fact that many of the management fads and fashionable techniques around today are thinly-disguised ways of manipulating people to do what is probably not in their best interests. Macho management is highly manipulative; alternately brutal and bullying, or full of appeals to heroic sentiments, but always about getting people to work harder and faster to benefit others—mostly the executives of the business and the shareholders.

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Folly seems to be firmly in control today in many boardrooms. By a combination of quick fixes, short-termism, and “management by numbers,” executives ignore the obvious long-term consequences of their actions and focus only on short-term wins—even as they risk wrecking the company by doing so. In reality, leaders have ethical duties as well as financial ones, and many management decisions are as much moral as economic. It’s time to slow down, allow reason to replace emotions and adrenaline-fueled hyperactivity, and start facing up to the consequences of foolish decisions at every level.

Related postings:

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership.

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

What Everyone Is Wrong About Achieving Inbox Zero

What Everyone Is Wrong About Achieving Inbox Zero

Ah, Inbox Zero. An achievement that so many of us long for. It’s elusive. It’s a productivity benchmark. It’s an ongoing battle.

It’s also unnecessary.

Don’t get me wrong, the way Inbox Zero was initially termed is incredibly valuable. Merlin Mann coined the phrase years ago and what he has defined it as goes well beyond the term itself.[1]

Yet people have created their own definition of Inbox Zero. They’re not using it with the intent that Mann suggested. Instead, it’s become about having nothing left in immediate view. It’s become about getting your email inbox to zero messages or having an empty inbox on your desk that was once filled with papers. It’s become about removing visual clutter.

But it’s not about that. Not at all.

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Here’s what inbox zero actually is, as defined by Mann:

“It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.” – Merlin Mann

The Fake Inbox Zero

The sense of fulfillment one gets from clearing out everything in your inbox is temporary at best, disappointing at worst. Often we find that we’re shooting for Inbox Zero just so that we can say that we’ve got “everything done that needed to be done”. That’s simply not the case.

Certainly, by removing all of your things that sit in your inbox means that they are either taken care of or are well on their way to being taken care of. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” is often applied to clearing out your inbox. But unless you’ve actually done something with the stuff, it’s either not worth having in your inbox in the first place or is still sitting in your “mental inbox”.

You have to do something with the stuff, and for many people, that is a hard thing to do. That’s why Inbox Zero – as defined by Mann – is not achieved as often as many people would like to believe. It’s this “watered down” concept of Inbox Zero that is completed instead. You’ve got no email in your inbox and you’ve got no paper on your desk’s inbox. So that must mean you’re at Inbox Zero.

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Until the next email arrives or the next document comes your way. Then you work to get rid of those as quickly as possible so that you can get back to Inbox Zero: The Lesser again. If it’s something that can be dealt with quickly, then you get there. But if they require more time, then soon you’ve got more stuff in your inboxes. So you switch up tasks to get to the things that don’t require as much time or attention so that you can get closer to this stripped down variation of Inbox Zero.

However, until you deal with the bigger items, you don’t quite get there. Some people feel as if they’ve let themselves (or others) down if they don’t get there. And that, quite frankly, is silly. That’s why this particular version of Inbox Zero doesn’t work.

The Ultimate Way to Get to Inbox Zero

So what’s the ultimate way to get to Inbox Zero?

Have zero inboxes.

The inbox is meant to be a stop along the way to your final destination. It’s the place where stuff sits until you’re ready to put it in the place where it sits until you’re ready to deal with it.

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So why not skip the inbox altogether? Why not put it in the place where it sits until you’re ready to deal with it? Because that requires immediate action. It means you need to give the item some thought and attention.

You need to step back and look at it rather than file it. That’s why we have a catch-all inbox, both for email and for analog items. It allows us to only look at these things when we’re ready to do so.

The funny thing is that we can decide when we’re ready to without actually looking at the inbox beforehand. We can look at things on our own watch rather than when we are alerted to or feel the need to.

There is no reason why you need an inbox at all to store things for longer than it sits there before you see it. None. It’s a choice. And the choice you should be making is how to deal with things when you first see them, rather than when to deal with things you haven’t looked at yet.

Stop Faking It

Seeing things in your inboxes is simply using your sight. Looking at things in your inbox when you first see them is using insight.

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Stop checking email more than twice per day. Turn off your alerts. Put your desk’s inbox somewhere that it can be accessed by others and only accessed by you when you’re ready to deal with what’s in it. Don’t put it on your desk – that’s productivity poison.

If you want to get to Inbox Zero — the real Inbox Zero — then get rid of those stops along the way. You’ll find that by doing that, you’ll be getting more of the stuff you really want done finished much faster, rather than see them moving along at the speed of not much more than zero.

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Featured photo credit: Web Hosting via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Merlin Mann: Inbox Zero

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