Cagematch in Corporate America: Actions vs Activities

February 20, 2008

20080218pistols.jpg VS waterfall1.gif

If yesterday’s post on the Johnny Rotten-inspired ‘action’ riff on ZenHabits seems unfinished, it probably is. The great thing about this mode of communication is I can be as craftsmanlike or as offhand as I feel like being at the moment.

On further reflection, I see a repeating motif in Corporate America: our customers and market demand actions, managers deliver activities. Here’s the difference: Actions get things done. Activities involve doing stuff. Preferably lots of stuff, with status meetings and Powerpoint dashboards where those activities are coded red, yellow or green with arrows that point up, down or sideways. (Possibly we could have the colors flash on and off at different rates to encode yet one more bit of vital status-indicating detail in one cell of a table).

Nowhere is this more evident than in what’s known as a ‘Gap Plan’. Sometimes it’s called a GAP Plan by folks who must think it’s an acronym. (For what? Get Activities Percolating?) The Gap Plan is a response to an organization on a trajectory to miss a goal. That shortfall is quantified (‘we’re going to miss by $5MM’) and that amount is the Gap. Management collaborates to identify activities that will make up the shortfall – we’ll get $1.5MM from our ‘why wait, buy now’ promotion, $700K from doubling down on an an upgrade plan, etc. If you’re a Zen-master Gap Planner, you’ll have your analysts do waterfall charts like the above (thanks to Excel champ Jon Peltier, whose Website saved me multiple times when I was in data-geek roles).

Does this activity about activities get us anywhere? Clearly you’ve missed the point. It gets us a PowerPoint to share with senior management. They review it and get the point: these guys are busy with LOTS of activities! Everyone now feels that Something Has Been Done.

If those activities are executed and make up the shortfall, great. The problem is this: during the entire exercise the focus is on the Gap Plan, not on actually filling the gap. What would happen if senior management, instead of demanding a PowerPoint, said this:

“Just like I do, you see that we are on track to miss the goal by $5MM. I don’t want to slow you down during a critical time, so please don’t spend a second making a PowerPoint about this. Instead, tell me three things so that I can communicate to my boss/VCs/shareholders/the Street:

  • What actions are we taking right now to reach the goal?
  • Where do you think we’ll actually land?
  • What can I do to help? How can I support the sales force? Who are the critical customers or prospects I should call? Is there some pending product enhancement or fix that would help that I could use executive muscle to get the organization to deliver ahead of time?”

This has already been a long post and I have some actions to get to today. Is your day filled with actions or activities today?

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4 Responses to “Cagematch in Corporate America: Actions vs Activities”

  1. Tim Says:

    This is SO important, Russ.

    –It’s much easier to manage a to-do list than to actually, y’know, DO things.

    –It’s much easier to “work on” things than to GET STUFF ACCOMPLISHED.

    Me, today: actions, not activities…

  2. rsomers Says:

    Thanks Tim!

    Sometimes I think ‘GAP Plan’ powerpoints should be followed with Johnny Rotten’s last words from the Sex Pistol’s final Winterland performance: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

  3. jonpeltier Says:

    For anyone interested, I’ve built a Waterfall Chart Utility. This allows you to make your own waterfall charts of the type shown next to Johnny Rotten above, rather than relying on your analysts. Details:
    Waterfall Chart

  4. rsomers Says:

    Thanks Jon! I have often benefited from the Excel expertise you’ve shared via your website and in newsgroups. This looks like a great tool.


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