“ASAP” considered harmful

When do you want it?  “As soon as possible”, comes the ready answer.

Everyone says it. Everyone knows what they mean by it, in essence, and it seems fairly harmless.  But more often than not, I’ve seen it overused as a substitute for real thought and real leadership.

Especially in this new era of “internet time”, the declaration of “I want it ASAP” has often turned into an excuse not to plan, a rejection of due diligence and careful preparation, or even an intentional ignoring of previous lessons learned.  Taken to an extreme, it can represent the triumph of pure testosterone over diligence and caution.

Meg Whitman, former CEO at eBay, writes in her recent book, The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and in Life about how one positive performance differentiator of individuals at eBay was their sense of urgency.  “eBay never would have prospered as it did without a team with a strong bias for action,” she states.  Having worked in a couple of places that were unnecessarily and infuriatingly slow in their decision-making, I too tend to generally applaud a bias towards action in business.  It reflects a philosophy that an imperfect plan executed right now is usually better than a perfect plan executed next year.  Or, as Seth Godin puts it in his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable: “Real artists ship.” Or, as a tweet I saw recently had it, “if you’re not embarrassed by the first launch of your product, that means you waited too long.”

However, one can take a bias towards action too far.

I worked for a CEO once whose middle name could have been ASAP.  No matter what anyone’s estimate was on how long a particular initiative or plan would take, he typically wanted it in about a quarter of that time.  This pattern came out yet again when we set about purchasing a long-desired Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system for the company, and spoke of needing to carefully plan the company-wide training, change management, and staggered adoption approach for this major initiative.  His strongly worded reproach came swiftly: we don’t need any of that. Why not just start using the CRM as soon as we buy it?  People will pick it up as they need to, he shrugged, without need for training. After all, he said, “they work for us, don’t they?”  Normally, pointing out the results of a quick googling of “top reasons for CRM failure” will help dispel this kind of mindset, but unfortunately, this wasn’t a facts-based attitude.  He’d moved beyond a mere healthy “bias towards action,” and had entered an unfortunate land-of-no-return, where insisting on “ASAP” was his primary operating style as an executive.

But otherwise, what’s so bad about saying you need something ASAP?  Seems crisp and snappy and executive-like, right?  Well, a few things come to mind:

  • It emphasizes sheer time pressure over the need for thought. Sometimes that’s necessary, but not as often as ASAP aficionados think.
  • It’s similar to saying that “everything is priority #1”, in that both statements dismiss the obvious questions that need to be answered about trade-offs
  • Declaring a target of “ASAP” is simply not the way a professional looks at things: it’s vague and reactive, not proactive, not measured. It usually reflects a company that is flailing to reach its goals, not executing methodically.
  • It demonstrates a general reluctance, often, to watch out for pitfalls learned from previous projects or from long-accepted industry best practices.
  • It usually comes hand-in-hand with impatience with anything that might make the effort more complex, and/or slow things down, even though there’s usually merit in considering those things up front.

A common and especially dangerous use of ASAP in IT circles revolves around something I’ve mentioned before: the much-ballyhooed “immediate follow-on release” following a major launch.  “Oh, we’ll do that in the follow-on release,” people are heard to promise. “Don’t worry; that’ll be fixed right after launch.”  “No problem, we’ll have a catch-up release within the first couple weeks after launch,” I heard a Big 5 partner-level executive promise repeatedly, any time a gap or error in the software they were developing was pointed out. How often does such a release really happen in the first couple of weeks after a major launch?  The answer is next to never, at least when it comes to fixing anything other than the most dire of problems.  And when it does, the short list of included items (typically driven by what’s been uncovered in production use) is usually far, far different from what’s been promised all along the line.  In the case of these piled-on promises, “ASAP” has been used as nothing but an empty palliative for concern about real problems.

If you really want something ASAP, then ASAP should actually mean, “this is more important than anything else.”  But it doesn’t. Almost never, anyway.  “Launch the new system ASAP” never (of course) means “ignore any failures of all of our other systems in the meantime”.  Where’s the balance? Well, that’s where the due diligence and planning come in.

So, along those lines, here’s what to ask for and consider as an executive, rather than just dropping an easy “ASAP” as a knee-jerk directive:

  • What’s a plausible, defensible plan where we can expedite this initiative?
  • What are the trade-offs and risks of doing so?
  • What are the alternative approaches, with pros, cons, and probable timeline  listed for each?
  • What am I specifically willing to give up and/or risk to get what I need ASAP?

Then, when the results of such analysis are gathered, you get together and soberly discuss those alternatives, make tough but informed choices collectively, and then settle on an appropriate and achievable target date.  Now that’s being a leader; that’s being an executive.  Anything less is not much more than strutting.

Comments

  1. Peter, very sound advice, thanks for taking the time to share. One does wonder why Mr./Mrs. “ASAP” doesn’t look back at the resource plans and time reports to see the devastation they leave in their wake.

  2. Chris Puttick says:

    I always took the liberty of interpreting the “P” in ASAP – possible is about appropriate prioritisation, competition for scarce resources. The phrase to use for when “this is more important than anything else” is “we need it yesterday”!

  3. Nice article, Peter. I often find myself saying “ASAP” and this gives me a fresh perspective on its usage.

  4. Peter,
    Great article! You offered the readers a logical way to think through when to use ASAP as a tool versus treating it as another acronym to drop around to get things done. Can’t wait to read more of your work!

  5. I enjoyed reading this since in today’s American IT culture there is never time to do hings right, but there is apparently time to do it over…..The ‘ready fire aim’ approach works I guess in war time, or maybe with Executives who feel they are at war. The CIO needs to spend about 50% of his/her time selling and I wonder how many CIOs are willing to stand up to the CEO and sell him/her on the risks inherent in a fast risky project versus a methodical, well planned, and methodical one. Bill

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