Classic: The Procrastinator

Originally published 5/08/11

With the Procrastinator, nothing is ever over until the project, decision, or event is far in the past.  Procrastinators have difficulty making decisions, and once they finally do manage to decide, their subordinates learn that no decision is forever.  With the Procrastinator, there is a constant risk of past decisions being regurgitated, reconsidered, and reversed – sometimes more than once.

The typical time arc for a project in the Procrastinator's organization could include any and all of the following:  an initial review, multiple demands for more data, a series of further reviews each with no clear decision, direction that becomes a bit more clear as the process progresses (although often different from the original direction), no ultimate closure prior to the start of implementation, and handwringing after the fact (if not an outright reversal).

Procrastinators tend to flip-flop their decisions, talking themselves into alternately approving and then disapproving various company actions.  Procrastinators have difficulty committing to any course of action without perfect information, and as perfect information is rarely available in the real world they often rely on the whims of those above them in the organizational hierarchy (perhaps a board member, or a more senior officer of the company).  Unfortunately, “higher ups” often have a relatively poor perspective on the situation, and tend to substitute “rules of thumb” for the time and effort needed to thoroughly understand the situation.  If and when the Procrastinator finally does take a stand it, he often errs on the side of conservatism, killing off new ideas or concepts.  From his subordinate’s perspective, it will appear that any project or initiative must run a gauntlet of handwringing reviews, where at any stage a decision against the project will spell its ultimate end.

I once worked for such a procrastinator, and the process was maddening to say the least.  This particular senior manager flip-flopped on one of my acquisitions no less than five times as I tried to bring negotiations to a conclusion.  After the fifth demand to renegotiate some aspect of the deal, I threw in the towel, telling the sellers that getting to an acceptable outcome apparently was impossible.

Interestingly, the primary criticism of this manager by his superiors was that he seemed unable to put to use the horde of resources the company had accumulated over a number of years.

At the core of the Procrastinator’s indecisiveness there appears to be a deep-seated fear of making a mistake.  As I’ve discussed in other posts, managerial failures are generally punished more than successes are rewarded.  The procrastinator attempts to forever hang onto the option of pulling the plug on any (remotely) controversial or questionable project in a vain attempt to avoid any and all failure.

 Original LEVERAGE cover.  I still have a few of these if you'd like an autographed copy.  Click image for more Info

Original LEVERAGE cover.  I still have a few of these if you'd like an autographed copy.  Click image for more Info

Employees find this this extreme leadership style provides a “foundation of sand” for their work.  In an environment ruled by the Procrastinator, it is difficult to build upon past successes as old decisions, which provide the foundation for future advancement, are rarely left alone.  Managerial sponsors of projects constantly find themselves defending their past work, rather than proposing new.  The Procrastinator’s organization is one where managers spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to hold onto meager gains rather than advancing the organization.  Braver managers tend to "ask for forgiveness, rather than permission," putting their careers in high risk situations on a regular basis.  Eventually, the company’s most innovative leaders will become frustrated and search for a job elsewhere.

Ultimately the organization stagnates then calcifies.  Fairly obvious decisions are left dangling, and far too many projects are rejected.  The organization becomes focused on divining what it takes to obtain the approval of the leader rather than what is right for the business.  Innovation is stifled, and progress in the organization becomes limited to what the Procrastinator herself can accomplish.

The organization can persist in this state for quite a long time, particularly if the industry is mature, slow to change, and there are no other nimble competitors nipping at their heels.

The employee's best bet in dealing with a procrastinator is to either get out early, or plan to out-last and out-endure this extreme leader.

Other Posts in this Series:

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If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing.

Novels:  LEVERAGE, INCENTIVIZE, DELIVERABLES, HEIR APPARENT, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, and EMPOWERED.

Non-Fiction:  NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS

To the right is the cover of LEVERAGE.  This novel explores the theft of sensitive DOD designs from a Minneapolis Tech Company, and the dangers associated with digging too deeply into the surrounding mystery.  The tale features first level manager, Mark Carson, and the struggle he experiences as he finds the resources of the corporation aligned against him.  Its sequel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, (also pictured on the right) was released in May of 2014.  A third book in the series, OUTSOURCED, is in the works.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.