Want to Make an Impact? Prepare and Do.

Want to Make an Impact? Prepare and Do.

“You are what you do, not what you say you'll do.”

— Carl Jung


Want to make an impact? Connect with your mind and examine your consciousness.

Every other option becomes an act of vandalism or hubris rather quickly in the modern sense of the word.# For many involved in knowledge work, professional services, or even technology, an actual exchange of value is hard to measure beyond the immediate. But there's a way to prepare for and build over time.

Put into this context, it's not obvious you could translate impact into positive effect, influence, or change quickly. But that's what most of us think we intend for impact,” and want. This kind of impact comes down to good decision-making.


Explaining what's going on

Of course, not all decisions are created equal. What flavors in my gelato doesn't have the same weight as which ingredients. This is something people with food allergies know well. So the question needs precision: what flavors in sorbetto?

All decisions are like this, they have different layers to them. But it's easier to see them as either/or rather than it depends.” If you don't practice seeing beyond the surfacefor example, by putting yourself in someone else's shoes, even hypothetically—you miss the layers.

You can make good decisions by going after the relevant information. That's why it helps to try and explain what's going on. Even better if from the outside looking in. Know too little, and you won't be able to; know too much and you'll get bogged down in the details and might miss the point… or the timing of it.

Also, watch out for what you measure: number of flavors is tactical, enjoyment without indigestion or worse is strategic. So by all means track the small things (metrics), but keep an eye on the big ones, like direction toward your goal (KPIs).

Thinking in layers is useful to expand options and keep people at the center of decisions.


Expanding options

Catalent's late-stage and commercial product launch site in Anagni is preparing to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine in Europe on behalf of AstraZeneca. This is a plant that had an uncertain future two short years ago. Bristol Myers Squibb had decided to sell.

General Manager Barbara Sambuco and a small number of her staff had been informed of the future sale.# Sambuco and her small team had a short window of opportunity to involve a sociologist and work together to take stock and enhance the skills of the plant and the people.

The idea was not only to build capacityequipment and resourcesbut also capabilities—so they would know how to apply the resources in times of crisis. That time was the upcoming sale. Imagine if they had envisioned a pandemic! They called the project “vocation.”

For about a year of their two-year sale notice they involved a group of middle managerskey people within the company. With them, they talked, constructed the values ​​uniting the company, and drew up goals to guide everyone.

Then the plant organized two big events for the entire staff. The first was a game. Seven hundred people put themselves to the test while having fun. Thanks to the playful expedient they were able to share and convey the values ​​developed with the managers.

The second event was an internal hackathon: about three hundred people from the plant participated, including workers, analysts, engineers, etc. It was designed to highlight the things people wanted to bring into the new reality and those they wanted to leave behind.

You can't just announce an acquisition and wing it. That's where vandalism and hubris come in dressed as impact. Instead, they put a lot of thought and work in training the people at the Anagni plant. When executives announced the sale, the staff were ready to face the challenge. It was a shock, but they were ready to go to work.

This decision to communicate and construct together was fundamental. It helped leaders understand the preparation people needed and the role they could play in the transition. People are not goods, you don't just move them here and there in a spreadsheet sort. In Anagni they felt part of the transition.

Without this work it was unthinkable to be able to sell a plant with the support of the trade unions, with no strike days, and with absenteeism that remained below 3%, says Sambuco. This is work I am proud of.” And so she should be. I've seen enough mergers and acquisitions that did not reach a fraction of their potential in my career to know the power of layers in decision-making.

Catalent is a company that supplies more than 70 billion pharma, biopharma, and consumer health products to market to 80+ countries in 5 continents. And now, the Anagni plant has a key role to play in the European vaccine rollout.

Management decisions involved many layers and time. But they got the plant were it needed to be to execute.


Embodying execution

Whenever we see a gap between what we intended and what happened, it's easy enough to explain mistakes away. But we're often blind to them when we let the presentation of our claims paper over those gaps in execution.

Not enough executives feel embarrassed when they overstate impact.# That's a shame, because execution is all about embodying the work. And embodiment is all about being prepared to see, feel, and experience.

Five years ago, I noted how 80,000 Hours put together a list of simple steps on how to choose. A career is their context, but you could adapt these points to many kinds of decisions. We don't do enough of number 1 and 3, and often overlook number 5 and 6:

  1. Focus mainly on taking a good next step, not figuring out a precise long-term plan.
  2. Write out your most important priorities for the decision.
  3. Brainstorm extra options. Most people consider too few.
  4. Rank your options.
  5. Write out your key uncertainties.
  6. Go and investigate your key uncertainties. Many people try to figure out their career from the armchair, when often it would be better to go and speak to people or try things.
  7. Do your final ranking. Assess your options based on your priorities, and ask yourself why you might be wrong. Don’t just go with your gut.
  8. Make your best guess.

Trying things could include becoming an apprentice. I'm a huge fan of gaining some practice by doing things yourself. In much knowledge work, you cannot opine your way into knowing. It takes doing the work to understand how seemingly simple things are complex, or not easy to do.

Hands-on experience is invaluable. But not in the ways we intend.

We underestimate the contribution of manual work to learning, and the value of embodiment to getting things done. Knowledge work and professional services / technology experienced less of an interruption this past year. Yet, the way we work has changed.

People have had the opportunity to expand their decision-making by seeing the layers. With overlapping work and life, everyone had more opportunity to experiment with circadian rhythms and productivity, integrating life as we embody our work.

It's been almost a situation like the top managers at the Anagni plant. We talked, constructed what worked to unite us in different contexts, and drew up goals for the upcoming year. I've not seen so much enthusiasm in business cycles as I've seen at the start of this year.

And with good reason. The strong became stronger. The smart figured out a way to embody and own execution in a changed environment. This is a tremendous opportunity to be part of the transition to the work we want, modeling on what we found worked in the crisis.

What do you want to bring into the new reality, what should stay behind? If you're waiting to go back to normal… well, that world doesn't exist anymore. It didn't for a while. But it was the forced context that pushed the awareness out in the open.

Value is the ability to make positive change. We all want impact in this sense of the word. If you've prepared for it, you have a shot at being part of the transition.


We did something similar to the “vocation” project at a company where I helped grow sales for a divestiture. It involved understanding our capabilities and the gap between work in normal circumstances and work under stress. I've talked about some aspects of the work in an article about opportunity in the gap between what you know and what you don't.

Every company is going to face some form of transition in the coming year(s). Why does everyone insist on hiring people who align with the way things were? Fear? Doubt? If this is you, start by writing down your uncertainties and become a detective: investigate them! 

Also, see the distinction between uncertainty and risk.

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