Humans are brilliant starters. They are tragically poor finishers.
Starting is the easy part. It’s easy to start exercising. It’s easy to enroll in school. It’s easy to hatch a new business idea. It’s easy to be nice, refrain from cursing, serve others or listen to your spouse — for a day. It’s less easy on the second day. The grade gets steeper and it doesn’t level out until you’ve consolidated the change into your personal behavior or your organizational culture.
If you’ve started a half-pound cheeseburger, don’t worry about going the distance. But if you’ve started a marriage, a job or a friendship, hang in there.
As you might expect, the study of personal and organizational change is overwhelmingly the study of failure. Success represents positive deviance. If you’re a student of change, you can expect to spend most of your time sifting through the wreckage of things that started well and ended poorly. People and the organizations they create are littered with the failed remains of false starts.
But in the wreckage, we find critical insights. One of the biggest is that we simply take our hands off the wheel too soon. We get tired. We get bored. We get distracted. And then we fail. It happens over and over. Sometimes we learn from our failures. But it usually takes a while to really dial in the desire and the discipline to be a finisher.
The act of finishing comes from the inside. When the lights go down and the cheering crowds disperse, you’re on your own. And that’s usually what finishing is all about. It’s lonely, inglorious work. If you feed on praise and recognition, finishing is hard. Why finish when you can seek out new company and flit to the next gig?
Think about finishing in organizations. Think about the perverse incentives that tempt leaders to throw in the towel prematurely. Starting is for the rock star. This is where the rewards are. This is where most human resources management systems provide reinforcement. Finishing is different. Finishing is the long, hard slog, the steep ascent, the lonely road. Finishing is often done in obscurity. The incentives have dried up. The thrill is gone. It comes down to grinding discipline when no one is holding you accountable but yourself. Finally, we often mistake momentum for completion because, on appearance, starting looks like finishing if people are doing what they should.
The big software install is the classic case here. Company A installs a new software system. Managers train everyone to use it and in fact during the first couple of weeks, it goes quite well. The system works and the employees are doing their part. But it doesn’t mean they like it, embrace it or would use it if they had the choice. They are only behaviorally compliant. Sure enough, a few weeks later, everyone goes back to the old legacy system and the new system becomes an expensive sunk cost. The leaders didn’t go the distance. They took their hands off the wheel. They didn’t capture hearts and minds. People never got on board.
What does it take to be a strong finisher? It takes a person whose capacity to endure planned deprivation is stronger than her desire for instant gratification. That’s a fancy way of saying that you’d rather take a bag of marshmallows later rather than one marshmallow now.
To finish is to endure for a greater reward. Does that sound like something our popular culture would espouse? That’s part of the problem. Our popular culture has nothing but reproach and merry disdain for the values that lead to finishing and nothing but vulgar, narcissistic adoration for the values that lead to starting.
Society seems to teach us less and less about finishing. And yet all of the signal accomplishments of humankind are feats of finishing.
On second thought, you might want to finish that cheeseburger.
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark Partners, a training and consulting organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and is the best-selling author of "Epic Change" and "The Leadership Test." Email: [email protected]