In the manufacturing business, “Book it and ship it” can simply mean, “We’ve finished building this. Let’s fill the orders and move on.”

But I’ve also used the expression more broadly as a way of saying, “No more dithering. We’ve done our best here; now let’s put the decision in motion and see what happens.” If problems develop, you manage them. But kicking the can down the road over and over just saps energy. Success comes from the implementation of ideas. Time must be spent on organizing, strategizing, and planning, but then you need to complete the project, release the product, hire the person, or get the donation.

Success is 10% planning, and 90% implementation.

The Cost of Perfect Information

Voltaire said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” That’s sound advice. Time is wasted and opportunities are lost when people become fixated on having perfect information rather than trusting their instincts, making decisions, and then managing the consequences. Organizations in motion can alter course much faster than they can go from zero to 60. Decisions create momentum.

That does not mean you agree to pursue long shots or ignore troubling data just to make sure you do something. You always want good information. And you want extremely good information when you are calculating a moon shot or planning a brain surgery. But the cost of perfect information is too high for most decisions. Too many people agonize for too long making decisions and then they don’t pay enough attention to managing the outcome. They neglect to establish contingency plans and milestones and then do an honest assessment of whether the plan is working as the organization reaches (or doesn’t reach) those milestones. Once in motion, they often neglect the course corrections necessary for success.

More complex decisions require a staged process. Gather a few people with the best perspective to frame the decision needed. Assign for appropriate analysis and recommendation. Get used to not having perfect information to make a decision. Of course the decision is important, but more important is how you manage next steps. Establish a written set of milestones to assess each decision and how you are managing the consequences of the decision over time.

Stay on the Cliff

At Applied Materials, we used to envision ourselves standing on a cliff. One of three things can happen:

1) You give a correct answer to the question and you stay on the cliff.

2) Wrong answer, you’re pushed off.

3) No answer, you’re also pushed off!

This scenario sharpens the mind. Within their area of responsibility, most people will give the right answer most of the time. You just need to decide to decide.

Making Decisions at The Nature Conservancy

We accomplished a lot during the time I served on the board of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). With a mission “to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends,” it’s the largest U.S. nonprofit focused on the environment. However, a disproportionate amount of time was spent reorganizing and strategizing. I became somewhat famous in TNC for using this phrase, “book it and ship it.”

Mark Burget, executive vice president and managing director of North America for TNC, put it this way:

“At one time TNC’s biggest shortcoming was our disproportionate focus on planning, internal discussion, and so on. In ‘book it and ship it’ I hear a plea to get on to execution. This is a challenge for any organization, but especially for a mission-driven organization facing very large, complex challenges. We could easily spend the rest of our lives talking about environmental problems and feeling pretty good about how smart we are. Jim reminds us to get to work on making change happen in the world. Make the purchase, get the easement, attract the funding, hire the person, close the opportunity. As William Blake said, ‘Execution is the chariot of genius.’”

Of course, this Morganism doesn’t apply just to environmental nonprofits. Making good decisions, timed right, is a challenge for all groups. My experience says that you just have to cultivate the habit of making timely decisions and then effectively communicate them.

I often think of the quotation, “When all was said and done, more was said than done.” Enough discussion: let’s book it and ship it!

To your success,

Jim Morgan

As always, complimentary copies of Applied Wisdom for Nonprofits, print, digital, and the audiobook, are just a click away.

What blocks you from making critical decisions?

How do you overcome uncertainty and move forward? 

Please leave your reply using the comment section below.

I’ve been building my collection of Morganisms—personal nuggets of business advice—throughout my career. I’m always collecting articles, lists, notes, and ideas while reading, listening to speakers, or just talking with people.

One of my favorite Morganisms is called Who Owns the Monkey?

Let’s say that one of your staff shows up in your office with a problem—a monkey—on his or her shoulder. As a manager, you want to acknowledge that you see the monkey, and that you care about the monkey. You may even pet the monkey for a few minutes. But you can’t let that employee leave the monkey behind for you to take care of. You want to be sure that when your employee walks out the door of your office, the monkey goes too. Owning the monkey means the person responsible cannot pass the buck; they must think through the consequences of decisions and try to solve the problem. There is no need to escalate it to the top at the first sign of trouble.

Both for-profit and nonprofit leaders are often overworked and under-resourced. Problems can easily move up the chain of command. You need to create a culture of accountability to ensure that the only issues that land on your plate are the ones that are your clear responsibility. When you empower employees to make decisions, you also empower them to solve problems that arise from those decisions.

The idea of owning the monkey comes from an article in the Harvard Business Review published back in 1974, Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass. They describe how managers should respond to employees who try to put a monkey on their back:

“At no time while I am helping you with this problem will your problem become my problem. When this meeting is over, the problem will leave this office exactly the way it came in—on your back.

“You may ask for my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be; and which of us will make it. In those rare instances where the next move turns out to be mine, you and I will determine it together. I will not make any move alone.”

The manager transfers the responsibility back to the direct report and keeps it there.

Oncken and Wass describe five degrees of initiatives that can empower staff decision-making.

The employee could:

  1. Wait until told (the lowest initiative).
  2. Ask what to do.
  3. Recommend an action, and wait for a decision.
  4. Act, but inform at once.
  5. Act, then report on the decision in due course (the highest initiative).

The manager’s job is to outlaw the use of 1 and 2, and to ensure that for each problem leaving his or her office, there is an agreed-upon level of initiative assigned to it.

Years later, management guru Stephen Covey pointed out in talking about monkeys, you should keep in mind that empowerment means you have to develop your staff’s skills, which is initially much more time-consuming than simply solving their problems on your own. But the investment pays off.

In a culture of accountability, employees are comfortable acknowledging reality, warts and all. Individuals do not just wait and hope things improve or spend their time crafting excuses or pointing fingers at others. They take responsibility for finding solutions and making improvements.

Make Your Management Toolkit

I have always encouraged people to develop their own sets of guiding principles. I urge everyone to do that as a habit that serves as a constant reminder that we evolve over our lifetime as managers, and there are always new ideas that can be helpful—or old ideas that suddenly apply to a situation in which we find ourselves. Learning to be a better manager is a lifelong process.

Latest Morgan Publishing News

I’m excited to launch a brand new website for my books, still at the old URL, There are two main features. First is that I’ve brought all of the content related to my books under one roof. Second is that I’m launching two new resources, an accessible, downloadable audiobook of Applied Wisdom for Nonprofits, and also a set of snappy bite-sized videos to introduce newcomers to the core concepts in the book.

Here’s the video of the introduction:

As always, complimentary copies of Applied Wisdom for Nonprofits, both print and digital, are just a click away.

I’ve always liked Kenny Rogers’ song The Gambler. It tells the story of a chance encounter with a man who he calls “the gambler.” In exchange for a drink of whiskey, the gambler agrees to offer him some advice. The advice? “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

The song makes me think about business strategy, knowing when to move ahead, when to re-engineer a project, and when the best move is just to shut down an initiative that’s gone off track.

There are many tools and techniques that can help you develop a sound business strategy. One of them I call “court sense.”

Why “court sense”?

Basketball is an intense and fluid game. I’ve always liked it because there’s no standing around waiting for a pitch or lining up and waiting for a snap. You have a game plan, but you have to adjust on the fly. You study your opponents’ behavior and focus on seizing opportunities as they arise. Playing basketball helped give me “court sense,” an ability to pay attention to more than one thing going on, to adjust to fast-changing variables in order to predict where the next opening or opportunity might be. And also to sense the challenges that will invariably arise.

The Morgan & Sons Cannery in the 1940s.

I grew up working in our family’s canning business, Morgan & Sons Canning. Canning vegetables might sound simple. But keeping a canning factory humming demanded focus and good judgment. As the equipment became increasingly complex and powerful it also became more dangerous. Training workers and making sure they followed safety procedures was essential. A shirt-tail or a sleeve caught in the canning line could lead to a serious injury; I saw men lose fingers or even a hand by being careless near gears and motors. That was my introduction to court sense. To this day I see things from the corner of my eye and project the probability of an accident.

Court sense is the alert, action-oriented posture that sports like basketball demand for success. It holds true in business and also for nonprofits. You can’t hone your court sense in a vacuum—or in an echo chamber. It’s valuable to take the time regularly to step out of your comfort zone and the weeds of daily details and immediate issues. As you develop your court sense you’ll see more clearly everything that’s happening around you, allowing you to rapidly adjust to changes.

In making decisions about the future direction of an organization, it’s critical to use your court sense to assess the driving forces. Driving forces can be macroeconomic factors, technology innovations, industry directions, and global trends. Moore’s Law was a driving force that helped us at Applied Materials, for example. Other driving forces today include a global interest in reducing reliance on fossil fuels, or the aging of the “Baby Boom” cohort. Micro driving forces can be unique, possibly fleeting opportunities such as a competitor’s strategic shift or stumble, or new tax incentives that encourage a specific investment.

It’s a good exercise to periodically look at the driving forces related to whatever you are doing. Assess whether you are positioning yourself to take advantage of the changes. Look at the demographic that you think represents your most important customers or funding sources and seek to understand what new ideas or cultural themes matter to them. Realize that this is a “best guess” domain so when you make a decision, keep recalibrating and adjusting.

In nonprofit management, it means not only paying attention to your personal agenda and actions, but realizing that managers must learn to simultaneously track the movements and momentum of the entire team, the entire organization, local and national politics, and current societal and economic trends.

Right now we have a very strong economy in the United States. A lot of people are making a lot of money, which is good news for fundraisers. But recent tax changes could make fundraising more difficult. Although the strong economy has reduced unemployment to record levels, it has increased housing costs in many communities, which in turn has made staff more expensive for every organization. Just like in for-profits, sudden policy changes in Washington are having an impact on many nonprofits, such as those focused on immigration or the environment.

It’s critical to adopt an alert, ready posture, constantly reminding yourself to look up, look forward, and look around. The better your court sense, the sooner you will see and react to changing conditions. You have to anticipate problems, process new variables, and adjust your strategy accordingly while finding ways to move forward. You become road kill if you don’t.