During the late 1990s, I had the pleasure of participating in an Outward Bound program during leadership training as Kellogg National Fellow. So many elements of that experience have stayed with me over the years. One that I often think of involved a leadership game requiring our team of about eight members to use a collection of materials (boards, rods, beams, etc.) to get across a small stream. And one additional important rule: without getting wet. Indeed, the instructions asked us to pretend that the stream was molten lava, so that anyone who fell in would perish. I was assigned to lead the team.
After I solicited ideas from everyone, the group wanted to go out and try. “Not yet,” said I. “This is molten lava and we need to make sure our plan is foolproof.” Of course, the exercise was timed and the minutes slipped away while we studied the task. When we were ready to try something carefully planned, the time was almost up. Then we failed, and many fell into the “lava” despite our schemes, foolish rather than foolproof!
Afterwards, we debriefed, and our facilitator used an expression I have come to love: “analysis paralysis.” What does it mean? Seasoned leaders know it well from experience. It means thinking too much, and letting “the perfect” become the enemy of “the good.”
Today I see signs of analysis paralysis everywhere in life. There are too many smart people out there who can predict all of the things that might go wrong with any plan proposed by anyone from anywhere. They study the mistakes people make so they can warn others. These people suffer from a sort of curse: the belief that not making a mistake is equal in value to getting something accomplished.
Change in human systems is almost never pretty. It does not play out like a well-rehearsed ballet, or a beautiful symphony performed by a professional orchestra. No, change is ugly. Really ugly. Real progress is painfully slow, full of errors and false starts. To make meaningful gains requires us to dive in and try, and then fix things as we go along. Delaying action just delays the inevitable process of making and fixing mistakes.
People looking for the perfect plan really don’t understand the world they inhabit. Here is the problem. While you plan, the world changes. While you execute your plan, the world changes. And meanwhile, you change as well. So no matter the time spent preparing, you need to be ready to change your plan anyway. So why spend inordinate amounts of time making detailed plans? Millennia ago Heraclitus said that one cannot “step twice into the same river.” The river you planned to cross is not the one you cross. The “you” who planned to cross is not the “you” who crosses.
Also, there are so many things that you don’t know and cannot know until you are in the middle of actually doing a task. To study a task, to look at it out in the future, is just never the same as the experience of actually doing it in the present moment. You have to roll up your sleeves, dive in, and make adjustments as you go along. You only really know the river when you are in it.
The world has way too many “Monday morning quarterbacks.” Sigh. I really detest such people. They rarely attempt to do anything themselves. What they like to do is stand on the river bank screaming advice to the people trying to make a crossing. When those brave hearts fall in, these people laugh, criticize and explain the mistakes of the wet ones.
It is so obvious from the dry river bank. They can see it so clearly. But invite one of the critics to come out and try to make a crossing. “No, no,” they will usually explain. “I’m an expert. I don’t actually cross the river. I tell you how to do it. Then I point out your mistakes.” Real creators and innovators don’t pay much attention to these people. They know that there is a huge difference between those who do and those who stand by, watching and criticizing.
Our public policy today in many arenas—health care, education, economic development, foreign policy, and so on—has been brought nearly to a standstill by people who would rather explain than do, who would rather criticize than commit, who would rather evaluate than achieve, who would rather measure than make, who would rather study than create. Our visible leaders too often are men and women who believe that talking about progress is a viable substitute for achieving it. They would rather be right than fail in a sincere effort. So many fans, so many commentators, so many coaches and referees— but where are those with the courage to go out and play?
The forward motion of human society requires a generation of courageous leaders willing to ignore the peanut gallery and to press on with flawed actions in the muck and mire of real life. We need more leaders willing to make mistakes, to get dirty, to be wrong, yes, to fall into the stream and to die in the molten lava if need be.
I live near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and sometimes go there in the winter when it’s nasty and cold. The place is not famous as the site of a victory in battle or any single great event. It’s the place (you history buffs may remember) where Washington and his troops suffered and licked their wounds in the middle of the American Revolution. They were on the ropes after a series of major defeats, and for a time it seemed to Washington that the army might even disband. I like to imagine him there in the snow full of uncertainty, freezing to death, the outcome unsure, praying for the strength to move forward against extremely difficult odds. I have learned from experience that this is the general posture of people who make a difference in causes that matter. So here is the good news: if you are feeling a sense of looming defeat, if you are standing steady in the focal point of great criticism, if people are laughing at you and explaining your failures, it may mean that you are struggling in a task of great importance, that you actually might achieve something significant. But don’t think about this too much: it’s time to get wet.
This essay originally appeared on KFLA’s Courageous Leadership Blog.