Getting Things Done

“Dithering” is a word we don’t hear very often despite its applicability to so many current situations.  Vacillating or acting indecisively are different ways of expressing what dithering means to me and what seems to happen too often in our world.  We talk about doing things or solving problems but frequently fail to act for fear of doing the wrong thing.  A great South Asian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, expressed the concept eloquently when he wrote:  “The song I came to sing remains unsung to this day.  I have spent my days in stringing and in unstringing my instrument.”

I have spent many days worrying about issues without really doing much to resolve them.  I think city managers might best be described as professional worriers, and that’s not necessarily a criticism.  Someone needs to be concerned about what will happen in the future and be responsible for taking actions that will make things better or avoid making them worse.  I believe the most important aspect of all the worrying is insuring that actions are taken and things get done.

It sounds easy enough, and there is even a popular writer who has achieved a degree of fame by putting a copyright on GTD or “Getting Things Done.”  The more people needed to complete a task, in my opinion, the more complicated and difficult the task becomes.  I usually don’t have any problems doing something when I’m the only person involved (this blog, for example); but if I am depending on a number of other people to do a piece of the work, that’s usually where I see dithering.

The reason I hear most often for why something hasn’t been accomplished is lack of resources.  “I/We didn’t have enough … to do what needed to be done.”  Time, money, people, or equipment is in short supply; so nothing happened.  During my recent work abroad, I saw evidence of people being employed for months or years doing nothing while waiting for sufficient resources to do something.

In the developed world, the reason for inaction is often that we need to know more before we do anything.  Creating consensus, obtaining data, or completing technical work are just a few of the excuses for why things don’t get done.  Just as with a lack of resources, many of these hurdles can be legitimate reasons why something is not happening.  Few people want to be responsible for mistakes that might have been prevented by better planning.

I would argue that waiting to have all the resources and all the possible pitfalls identified before proceeding is a prescription for inactivity and compounding problems.

Learning by doing will surely produce some mistakes, but it is also far more likely to produce beneficial results than doing nothing.  I was reminded by my recent experience in Africa that dithering, particularly in the face of an acute problem, is not an appropriate strategy for making communities better places to live.