We are not, as human beings, naturally inclined to enjoy delayed gratification. This is evidenced by one of the most influential behavioral studies in modern history: The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.
This study on deferred gratification was conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel of Stanford University. The participants in the study were preschool children aged four to six and the premise was very simple. Each child was lead into a room free of distractions and presented with a marshmallow. The child was told that the marshmallow was theirs and that they could eat it at any time. If however, the child could wait at least fifteen minutes before consuming the sugary treat, he or she would be given a second marshmallow as a reward and could then eat two. The scientists then stepped out of the room and watched to see how long each child could wait before eating the marshmallow.
Of the over six hundred children who took part in the experiment, only a minority ate the marshmallow as soon as the door closed behind the researchers. But, of those who attempted to delay, only one-third deferred gratification long enough to receive the second marshmallow.
Now the truth is that most of us probably do not need a scientific study to show us that we are, by nature, instant gratification beings. In fact, we have built entire industries around the idea of instant gratification. Everything from fast food, to credit cards, to instant messaging, plays to our desire to eat, purchase and communicate as quickly as possibly. And I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with those things. In fact, there are other instant gratification services, like our emergency responders, that are inherently good for us.
My point here is not that all instant gratification is bad, it’s just that when it comes to business goals and strategy creation, instant gratification is almost always harmful. We have seen it over and over in businesses with good intentions that have started down the path of change, or that have implemented an improvement program, and when the results are not seen quickly the program is shutdown, the strategy abandoned and the company moves back to a position of comfort.
This then becomes a pattern: dabble a little in this, tinker with that, toy with unrealistic expectations, and finally fold to temptation. This is repeated until totally discouragement sets in.
There is rarely, if ever, any benefit to dabbling or only trying a little. When it comes to business strategy we’d like you to think of it as a long steady hill that needs to be climbed in order to achieve competitive differentiation through the things at which you excel. It’s more a marathon than a sprint.
When a company is pursuing loosely defined goals, is peopled with employees who do not understand the company’s goals and their role in achieving them, and is unwilling or unable to make the changes and sacrifices necessary to achieve those goals, it is in serious danger of perishing comfortably. It is necessary at this point to reset your goal- and strategy- making process in order to give your company the ability to succeed and grow well into the future.