Are You Going Fast or Forward?

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Activity is so often mistaken for progress.

June 30, 2001
Heather McCune, Editor in Chief

 

Activity is so often mistaken for progress.

I know that much for sure for I can remember the moment when that truth suddenly became crystal-clear to me. It was one of those eureka instances of the most humbling variety, one that, try as I might, stays with me. In the interest of trying to spare you a similar fate, I’ll explain it here.

I was a young editor running a magazine for the first time. A major special report had been assigned to one of the magazine’s senior writers. Over the course of a few weeks we had traded dozens of e-mails and voice mails. We’d spent hours talking through the assignment, sharing new developments and piecing together the information so that the finished product would offer readers the greatest return on their time.

Now it was the eleventh hour, and the finished product was due. My excitement and anticipation were high because every communication made me believe the final product would be exactly like the article I had imagined. Such was not the case when I read the manuscript. The reporting was complete, the writing was high-quality, but that one critical component that turns an article from something interesting into something useful was missing. It lacked the answer to the fundamental question, "So what?"

The eureka moment came in talking with the writer. Together we walked through the article page by page, reviewing the sources, sidebars and graphics. The author was proud of his work and rightly so. That I was asking him to go back and do the heavy lifting - to use his knowledge to connect all the information in a meaningful way for our readers - disturbed him. Finally, frustrated and pissed off, he said, "I’ve been working at light speed to get this done, and only now I find out I’ve been in idle the whole time!" (Cars were his thing, thus the engine analogy.)

There it was, that moment when two terrible truths collide. He was right; he had worked fast and worked hard on the assignment. I was right; the product of all his activity wouldn’t contribute to the success of our readers and, therefore, the success of the magazine. In total quality management terms, his activity bore no relationship to the magazine’s key success drivers.

Our disconnection had occurred at the most basic level - my communication of the magazine’s mission and his understanding of the same. The outcome of that failure had been a lot of hard work that didn’t move us forward one inch. After our meeting, I desperately wanted him to share the blame for our predicament. He didn’t listen, didn’t pay attention, just didn’t get it, I told myself. Try as I might, and I did try, I couldn’t rationalize away the fact that understanding wasn’t his responsibility; leading had been mine.

Lots of years have passed since that day, but the lessons learned stuck. Unfortunately, I discover anew each day that those lessons aren’t learned just once. Doing something isn’t an acceptable substitute for doing the right thing. Now, as the supercharged economy of the last decade finally cools, it is critical that work activities are productive and progressive the first time. No longer, though maybe there never have been, are there endless opportunities to cover mistakes by growing sales or margins. Buyers seek more value for their investment, and it is their definition of value that matters.

Value is, of course, nebulous. How do you measure and quantify that, let alone deliver it? Simple, you start with the customer, for the only reason your business and mine exist is to attract buyers of our goods and services. Knowing with absolute certainty what it is that creates satisfied customers in all their definitions is the foundation. Making sure that every process, procedure, position and person exists to meet that goal is the means to move forward instead of just fast.

There are lots of fancy terms to describe it, but what it boils down to is doing the right things the right way the first time and every time thereafter. What sounds so simple isn’t, but for a business there can be no other goal.

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