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Procrastinating management, or postponing in a professional way

‘No worries, dad, I’ll do it. Tomorrow.’ Already at an early age, humans are tempted by the call of procrastination. Managers too are tempted, decisions that need to be taken are postponed even when it’s clear this is bad. Why? How can we recognise this ‘procrastinating management’?

‘Tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week.’ This Spanish proverb shows how widespread procrastination is. You have to do something, you have to take a decision, but you don’t. You know it’s not smart, you know you’ll regret your lack of strength or discipline. But still, you procrastinate.

In companies, big and small, you have those issues, those decisions that are not taken. The Purple Crocodiles. The Elephants in the Room. The White Elephants. A core characteristic of such a challenge is that an immediate solution or immediate action is not absolutely necessary. Postponement will not lead to an problem right away.

Another characteristic is that there are risks involved. Maybe financial risks. The result of action is uncertain, a decision has to be based on assumptions. Maybe there’s a career risk. Managers like to avoid the issue. It is the subject that has been around for a while, and predecessors successfully managed to move if forward without burning their fingers. So you rather prevent the subject from being on the table … if you don’t like the answer, don’t ask the question.

Postponing often comes at a cost, waiting is often not a good idea, but you can always find a reason to convince yourself it’s a good idea.


You could say some procrastination is justified: there are valid reasons to postpone certain decisions or actions. This is not procrastination, or at least not the procrastinating management we talk about in this blog. When there’s a valid reason, or the postponement is outside your control, you’re not procrastinating.

So, what are the reasons behind real procrastination?

*Stick to the status quo: Disruption is the motto of these times. Everything changes faster and faster. But many organisations have deep pockets and only die slowly. These organisations don’t immediately feel the pain of not making decisions, they have long lasting service contracts and recurring income. They think -or hope- it is not as bad as some say. Decisions are only taken when they are inevitable.

When the problem becomes inevitable, the manager can still act. It’s not likely that anyone will tell him that the issue emerged because of his lack of courage in the past. And nobody will tell him that the solution now is multiple times more expensive than it was in the past. At least … nobody will tell the manager in a formal meeting, around the coffee machine the rhetoric might be different …

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*Lack of a clear strategy: Maybe you want to take a decision, but there’s no vision on the future. Without a clear strategy it is difficult to think of appropriate solutions. The bigger the size of events following a possible decision, the harder it is to make a choice without a view on the future.

*Lack of (senior) support: Maybe you are not the problem, but your mandate is. You need approval from higher management, but you don’t get it. In larger corporations, successive managers can all look up for a decision. It’s too easy to say that at the end it is up to the CEO, if you are in that situation, your company is in deep trouble.

*Atmosphere of fear: Sometimes the decision is clear, but not taken, out of fear. Because you know how your manager will respond. And that response is not pleasant, experience has learned. If that is your situation, you are not likely to make a decision, you will follow rules and procedures and shy away from risk.

An atmosphere of fear is devastating for an organisation, nobody will want to burn his fingers. If your organisation is in such a situation, forget about procrastinating management. You have bigger issues to deal with, find a new employer.

*Leadership: Different attitudes and reasons can explain procrastinating management, but in essence there’s one crucial element: leadership. The right leader has a forward looking view, wants issues on the table and fosters an open and safe environment, encourages continuous improvement, and accepts the fact that difficult choices have to be made.

Procrastinating management is a problem. Lots of management books have been written about decision making, leadership, independent thinking, purple crocodiles, mindset, … But the first step is: do what you have to do. Stand up. Take charge. Show leadership.

The Roman philosopher Seneca warned you two thousand years ago: ‘While we are postponing, life speeds by.’

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