Next Action

Jan. 23, 2008
“There are only two problems in life,” says productivity guru David Allen, in a white paper titled “Make It Up and Make It Happen” (found at So, what are the two problems?
“Problem #1: You know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it. Problem #2: You don’t know what you want. Anything you can define as a problem can be reduced to one or both of those statements,” according to Allen. The good thing about Allen is he doesn’t just leave you with the problems. He offers the solutions—two solutions for two problems. “You need to make it up, and make it happen.” Stated another way, you must decide and clarify what outcome you’re after. Then, you must determine how you get from here to there. Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” Allen implements this idea with the idea of “next action.” As he relates in his seminal book, “Getting Things Done,” a friend was coaching an executive who was hopelessly mired in a large stack of papers. He made the executive go through the stack one paper at a time and decide for each what the next action was that must be taken. He discovered that this led to a huge productivity advance. Allen concluded, “I noticed an extraordinary shift in energy and productivity whenever individuals and groups installed ‘What's the next action?’ as a fundamental and consistently asked question.” Allen defines a project as something that will require two or more next actions in order to accomplish. His method teaches ways to organize these projects. Another person deeply appreciative of the power of projects is the subject of this month’s interview—Mark Morgan. His book (co-authored with Raymond E. Levitt and William Malek), “Executing Your Strategy: How to Break It Down & Get It Done,” advances the argument that executing a company’s strategy requires the proper completion of the correct project portfolio. In other words, senior management must have clarity of vision (the “make it up” part of Allen’s solution) so that everyone in the company knows what the company wants. Then, management at all levels must develop and execute the projects that will turn the vision into reality (the “make it happen” part). Interesting times I’m writing this column at the end of December, which is typically a period of reflection of the past year and anticipation of the new one. I just posted a note on my blog ( about Cooper Industries acquisitions of three companies, including wireless technology company, Omnex. This on the heels of an announced acquisition of MTL. 2007 witnessed many other acquisitions. Based on interviews I’ve conducted recently with various chief executive officers, I anticipate no slowdown of acquisitions in 2008. Here are some interesting strategies to observe in the coming year to see if the management teams execute the correct projects. Will Rockwell Automation’s growth strategy of combining acquisitions with partnerships make it a significant global player in both process and factory automation? Will Emerson Process Management grow beyond its strength in instrumentation? Will Honeywell Process Solutions grow its business by strengthening its instrumentation portfolio? Will Yokogawa get closer to its coveted spot at the top of the process automation market? Can Invensys Process Systems’ management successfully steer the company into a services and support powerhouse? For these stories and analyses, and more, stay tuned. What’s your next action—aside from reading Automation World this year and checking out my blog, that is?

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