The subtle art of holding yourself accountable vol 1: future James is busy
I had a colleague a few years ago. His name was James (probably still is) and if you asked him to commit to something in the next few days, you would get a genuine answer as to whether he could afford the time and whether he felt whatever you had asked for warranted his attention. Honestly with clarity and grown-up accountability.
If, however, you made a claim on his time that was any further than two weeks into the future, “future James” would take the meeting. He said yes to everything. No filters applied. No scarcity of resources, time, headspace, goodwill. Future James will take the meeting current James doesn’t think is important.
He knew he was doing it.
He could see the pattern.
What he couldn’t see was which things fell into that category as they happened.
Current James wasn’t messing with future James. Some of the stuff he lumbered his future self with was important and useful and got done. But for most, by the time the future date rolled around, present James felt exactly as he always had about this thing: not important enough. Not right now. Postpone.
He didn’t do it on purpose. He was falling into a very common trap of deferred accountability.
James isn’t dumb, he is just optimistic
James isn’t saying yes to things scheduled for next month because he doesn’t realise they will come round fast and furious. He says yes because he hopes he will be fire-fighting less then. He says yes because he hopes he will have headspace to look at things that are not on fire. He says yes because he hopes that he will think the same but feel different.
But it’s hard to feel different when the pressures of life and work change on a day to day basis but remain relentless and undiminished. It is hard to feel different when each day brings fresh challenges but takes none of the old ones away.
Present James is an optimist. He believes in better, that is why he is good at driving change and rallying the troops and somehow getting things done despite the organisation seemingly doing everything in its power to trip him up or test him in a perverse game of obstacle racing.
It’s part of what makes him good at his job, that he keeps hoping he will turn a corner and have time for the important as well as the urgent. That he will have time for the interesting as well as the important. For the nice-to-have as well as the must-have.
He needs to learn to allow optimism to fuel his work but realism to drive his scheduling because the reality is, James needs to preserve strength.
Future James is present James, just a little more tired
By the time future James has become present James, all the fires he was fighting are still smouldering and a few new ones have started. There is a new committee he has been added to in recognition of his fire fighting service and his eldest kid is struggling at school. He is fine. He is delivering. Nothing gets dropped. Nothing gets cancelled. But he is tired. And although he doesn’t want to be the person who indefinitely postpones things or puts items under AOB (“any other business”) indefinitely, he feels if he does it he will buy future James time to bounce back and do all the stuff present James cannot even contemplate dealing with.
So present James dumps on future James yet again. Hoping future James will have time and not realising he is last month’s future James and all that has changed is he feels even more tired than he did when he scheduled this meeting or accepted involvement in this project.
What was he thinking?
He was thinking that evasion and inaction are not his style. He was thinking all he needs is a little more time. But the reality is that, whatever this is, was not important enough for present James to do. It was not urgent enough. Impactful enough. Or resonant enough for present James to say I will make time. Now. Today.
And that is all we are talking about here.
The courage to actually say you know what? This is not important enough. To me. So I won’t delay in the hope that you will go away or I will feel different. I will not indulge in a habit that the body corporate forgives because so many operate by stretching timelines. James is not like this.
That is what makes him good.
And yet he emulates the corporate’s worst habit. By allowing his future self to be less accountable than the present one. And despite all his hard work to change the world by changing his corner of the business, he perpetuates the bad behaviours.
So keep your future self in check.
The best party trick of all time
Try saying “I understand, I just don’t care” without feeling like a villain.
Admitting you don’t care in a way that is honest, transparent and non-confrontational is the superpower every corporate change-maker needs and the party trick that will save future James from present James’s dumping. It will also allow all the Jameses and your entire organisation to practice a culture of accountability that goes beyond ownership and delivery but also covers the hard questions of why we don’t ever get round to prioritising some stuff, why some stuff gets done and other stuff doesn’t, and what people need in order to clear more headspace.
Why is it ok to make a call as to whether something can be accommodated today, given everything? Why do we accept relative prioritisation today?
Because it’s the only way to live and run a business that’s why.
Why don’t we accept it in time? Why do we not accept that prioritisation conversation as something that lasts the course?
Because admitting something will never be a priority sounds final. And that is the point. It needs to be final. We shy away from it to spare people’s feelings but whoever preferred death by a thousand cuts to a clean blow?
The truth is that the work present James really cares about – because he cares about the cause or issue… because he believes it is impactful… because he believes it is important… that work he always does himself. Today. The things he leaves for future James are things that are not important enough right now.
The things present James doesn’t care about it. Or doesn’t think will move the needle.
And hopes someone else would pick them up and make them go away.
The problem with future James is he is not someone else.
And even if he was, across the organisation, the problem keeps sloshing about and never getting resolved. Because we have not practiced the party trick that says time is limited, I am tired and I can only do so much. I can only care about so much. I can only absorb so much. And this thing is not a thing I will make time for.
Shall we talk about that or keep kicking it down the hall at fortnightly intervals?
Future James will not sponsor a damn thing
You can’t care about everything.
You don’t have time for everything.
So hold yourself accountable on the choices you make and how you follow them up once you have made them. Make sure the effort that starts with you can also only stop with you. So it doesn’t stop. And treat your future self as a mildly more tired version of you, not the refreshed and regenerated “I need things to fill my time with” version of you that never existed and never will.
We’ve been at this transformation thing for a decade.
It was hard when it started and it keeps getting harder. It is not about to ease off. Future James will be busy. So give him a break by holding yourself accountable today: not just over the things that you commit to do. But over all the things you resolutely commit not to do.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as chief of staff at 11:FS and CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!