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Passion, People and Principles

The Long Term

post # 344 — April 3, 2007 — a Client Relations, Managing, Strategy post

In much of my recent thinking (and writing) I have observed that our biggest barrier, as individuals and as organizations, is the difficulty in doing what is in our long-term best interest, not just what provides immediate gratification.

This problem comes up again and again. In last week’s blogpost about How Not to Manage People, Mark D. observed: “My experience tells me that all things being equal most people want to or are at least willing to embrace your teachings but all things are not equal. As soon as your teachings conflict with short term financial gain, people begin to throw out the teachings which they view as costing them money. I know I am skeptical and somewhat jaded but there is no stomach for anything that risks immediate profits.”

As I tried to point out, this is not about just MY teachings, but is a much broader point. As I argued in Strategy and the Fat Smoker, it is part of the human condition that we can know what to do, why we should do it, and even how to do things for which we fervently desire the benefits. None of that actually predicts that we actually are going to do what we absolutely know is good for us.

Note that it’s not about a lack of incentives: live longer is a pretty good incentive!

I continue to be professionally frustrated by all of this. If we can’t help people start doing what even they say would be best for them, how can we be really helpful?

So here’s my question: how DO you help people actually get on the program for what is their best interests? The question is relevant if you are a manager trying to coach your subordinates, or if you a consultant or other trusted advisor trying to get a client on the path that is best for him or her.

So what actually works to get people to take the long-term view with their work, their business and their lives?

Rational discourse (logic) doesn’t seem to work consistently well, and providing statistically reliable data doesn’t seem to be persuasive (so much for the Surgeon General’s reports!)

In descending order of effectiveness, here’s my experience in what gets someone (us as well — don’t make this all about THEM) to change from acting in a short-term way to doing what they (already) know is best for them in the long-term:

  • Talk up or create the “glamour” of the future state (“Think of how fabulous it’s going to be when you’re there!)
  • Make it a moral principal (Isn’t it consistent with our/your values to act this way?)
  • Get us/them to commit themselves to more public disclosure on actions, to keep them/us on track (embarrassment rather than guilt.)

What experiences do the rest of you have? Have you helped a short-term actor become a long-term actor? What REALLY helped / worked to bring about this transition? What gets people on “the diet?”


Mike Hunter said:

In my (very) limited experience, your three methods work, and on occassion I’ve had success with a fourth: creating a small test case — a quick project that illustrates the larger principle. People want a taste of the long term success. So, with exercise, a coach might want to set some goal for 2-3 weeks — a quick gain in strength, for example — that rewards the athlete. You have to remind the person you’re coaching that not all the gains will come this quickly, but a few small, short-term rewards make it easier to commit to the long-term project.

posted on April 3, 2007

Santiago Gómez said:

I think that the problem is trust. You can implement long term projects if your people trust you. It is difficult to engage people in avoiding short-term tactics in favor of long-term strategies if they feel they may be betrayed during their path. Even medium term is too short. Managers change, and change means always uncertainty.

Trust is the only way to get people into long term strategy.

posted on April 3, 2007

patmcgraw said:

You forgot one important element…appeal to the individual’s greed and dangle “Imagine how much money you’ll get once this change goes through…promotions, noteriety, raises and bonuses.”

Works all too frequently.

posted on April 3, 2007

David (Maister) said:

My curiosity remains. decades ago, some colleagues of mine wrote a prize-winning HBR article “Managing as if Tomorrow Mattered.”

Some people live their lives as if tomorrow mattered, others don’t. Part of it is about risk avoidance, part of it is about having a high discount rate applied to future events.

But whatever it is, can one type really be changed into the other? Or is it hard-wired?

posted on April 3, 2007

Duncan Bucknell said:

“can one type really be changed into the other? Or is it hard-wired?”

With respect, it won’t be either one or the other – people are much more complicated than that.

My efforts have always focussed on getting people to accept reality. You will die one day, for instance – hardly anyone really understands and believes that about themselves. If they did, they would truly live very different lives.

Actually, the fact that humans can live with this particular uniquely human dichotomy (about accepting our own mortality) and mostly without going insane, is probably why we are so good at ignoring the long term for short term gain. We are wired to ignore what is obvious and right in front of us so that we can keep going. The problem is that we need to step back and check that we’re actually headed in the right direction.

To sum up – a lot of people seem to be more afraid of change then they are of their own death. Let me know if you disagree with this.

Applying this to your 3 points, David:

  • Talk up or create the “glamour” of the future state (“Think of how fabulous it’s going to be when you’re there!)

>>”I don’t even know if that future state exists or is possible. It’s not real to me.”

  • Make it a moral principal (Isn’t it consistent with our/your values to act this way?)

>>”What possible reason is there to follow any particular moral principal if I don’t truly believe that there will be a long term consequence?”

  • Get us/them to commit themselves to more public disclosure on actions, to keep them/us on track (embarrassment rather than guilt.)

>>”This might work on me for a while, but I will probably be doing all I can to shirk my responsibilities and dissipate the embarrassment by other means. Without accepting the reality of the situation and why I personally need to change, then I probably won’t, I’d rather suffer a little embarrasment, come to think of it.”

(David – has this one ever worked for very long?

However, its actually possible to see reality, accept it and get comfortable with it. If you can do that, then you will certainly rearrange how you do things.

So how do you get people to truly accept reality? Everyone is different. The trick is to really find out about them and help them pull the scales from their own eyes. This si obviously very difficult to achieve in a large group of people – though most effective will perhaps be to start at the top.

posted on April 4, 2007

Ric said:

Perhaps point 3 should more about transparency or scrutiny than embarrassment – often when we make ourselves “visible” it encourages more principled / sensible behaviour

posted on April 4, 2007

Mark D said:

As a fat former smoker and attorney with a healthy practice who has struggled with and been frustrated by the various law firm business and management issues, David’s article spoke to me on several levels. I have wrestled with this notion of a conflict between short term gratification and long term best health. I think you need the cult-like culture which drives behavior and drives out non-conformers as described in Good to Great (which is the notion of get on board or get off). In the absence of fairly homogenous view, I think not only does everyone need to truly be willing and buying into the diet, but that the comp system must reinforce the behavioral expectations. This raises the problem of 800 lb gorilla. In the absence of a strong culture of intolerance towards bad actors, it is really hard for people to deal with correcting this problem. I’ve heard a number of consultants and read several authors including David (I am pretty sure) say that problem people need to be dealt with even if their economic contribution is significant. In my experience, the only the most egregious cases ever get dealt with, and even in those egregious cases it almost requires an economic case to be made, such as threats of suit by employees, before the gorilla is confronted, much less any action taken. I guess that is where the leadership, or lack thereof, becomes apparent.

posted on April 4, 2007

Gabriella ORourke said:

…”So what actually works to get people to take the long-term view with their work, their business and their lives?”…

Long term health is not an event that happens in the distant future, but rather a goal that is achieved one day, one decision, at a time. The more committed someone is to their ultimate goal, and the more they can connect every little decision to whether it gets them closer towards or further away from their goal, the more likely the long-term change will happen. This is true whether the goal is weight loss, trans-continental immigration or business growth. I have been in several situations where the longer term goal became far more compelling through the realisation that each seemingly inconsequential decision I made throughout every day had the power and potential to move me closer or push the goal further from reach. I often work with Partners in professional services who look for immediate results due to the pressure of ‘chargeable hours’ as a business model. I engage them in a discussion around how each intended action will move them closer to, or away from, their ultimate vision. As savvy business people with high intelligence, most are willing to then compromise immediate gratification for longer term strategies provided they can see how each decision builds on the ones preceding.

posted on April 5, 2007

Duncan Bucknell said:

Gabriella – I really agree with your comment. I think you’ve provided a great example of what I was trying to get at in the last paragraph of my post.

posted on April 5, 2007

Cristian Mitreanu said:

As it transpires from the post and from the previous comments, this is a big discussion. And, I think, that we need to narrow it down to what is relevant here: Assuming that a business leader’s long-term personal success is directly dependent on her or his company’s long-term success, why does she or he make business decisions that seem to go against the company’s long-term success (and implicitly her or his own)?

In this case, the problem is a matter of perspective. I am not referring to people’s mental capabilities, but rather to the business’ body of knowledge. The most popular and heavily employed business concepts are decades old. And, as is the case with any discipline in its infancy, they are based on assumptions that today do not hold true anymore. As a result, many of them have become obsolete and unfit to generate a realistic big picture of the business environment.

Every individual strives for a successful existence, whatever the meaning. Typically, as she or he grows older, this successful existence covers more space (impact on other humans) and time (impact over time). So, my view is that all people care about the long term. It is just that, if not provided with a compelling big picture, an individual will develop one on her or his own.

Now, there are many problems with the big pictures provided by the popular, mainstream business concepts. Among the most important is the lack of a dynamic perspective. That is why most pictures of the future presented to business leaders are single-frame, still pictures. So, if the consultant’s picture doesn’t fit in the big picture (movie?) that the business leader already sees, it will be simply put aside. But, if the consultant’s picture is dynamic, presenting an evolution that can be tested (read felt) as it unfolds, it will be much more readily accepted, even though it was not part of the leader’s initial big picture.

In conclusion, people are not the problem; the discipline (body of knowledge) is. The world of business desperately needs new theoretical insight that would more accurately reflect reality, pushing the discipline forward in its transition from art to science.

posted on April 13, 2007

Cristian Mitreanu said:

“Never was there an age that placed economic interests higher than does our own. Never was the need of a scientific foundation for economic affairs felt more generally or more acutely. And never was the ability of practical men to utilize the achievements of science, in all fields of human activity, greater than in our day. If practical men, therefore, rely wholly on their own experience, and disregard our science in its present state of development, it cannot be due to a lack of serious interest or ability on their part. Nor can their disregard be the result of a haughty rejection of the deeper insight a true science would give into the circumstances and relationships determining the outcome of their activity. The cause of such remarkable indifference must not be sought elsewhere than in the present state of our science itself, in the sterility of all past endeavors to find its empirical foundations.

— Carl Menger in the preface of his 1871 book “Principles of Economics”

posted on June 22, 2007

structured settlement annuity said:

Your three ideas are very effective. Thanks for guiding.

posted on April 18, 2008