the shape of leadership

How Long Do I Look Before I Leap?

The tension between getting ready and getting started

Chris Colvin on June 7, 2017

Look before you leap, an adage warns. It’s sound advice. The La Quebrada Cliff Divers of Acapulco, Mexico, know this well. They take leaps from up to 115 feet high into water that varies from six- to 16-feet deep. Timing is crucial. They must wait for the tide to be at its highest when they enter the water. Jump too soon or too late, and the water is too shallow for a safe landing.

Likewise, timing matters when writing a sermon, beginning a project or launching a new ministry. Influential leaders know when to wait — and when to spring into action.

The Leap and the Look

There’s a tension between these two points.

If we leap too soon without having enough information, we’re prone to making mistakes and wasting time and effort.

But if we leap too late, information overload can paralyze us. It’s possible to have so many different opinions on a subject that we can’t make a good decision. Or we may end up chasing rabbit trails instead of finding the one big idea we need. Missed opportunities are often the result.

Don’t get stuck staring over a cliff without taking any action.

The trick is researching and following through in ways that minimize mistakes but don’t prolong the job. Putting it off too long can overburden staff members who are waiting for a decision.

How can you know when you’ve gathered enough information to take the leap? Here are a few ways to help get the timing right.

1. Know what you already know. Keep asking yourself throughout the project whether what you already know is enough. Keep track of the information you’re gathering and how it relates to what you started with. Once you stop gathering new information, it’s probably time to stop researching and start working.

2. Know what you don’t know. You’ll probably continue to find out things you didn’t know before. And this new information will open up whole new areas of discovery. If you’re starting a building project, for instance, you may discover that you need a special set of permits you had no idea about. Learning that will send you into a whole new area of research.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained the difference between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” In short, there are things we don’t know, but we know we don’t know them. Then there are the things we don’t yet realize we don’t know. As you research, you’ll uncover more of these “unknown unknowns.” Just getting them on your radar is half the battle.

3. Know when you have enough. One key to success in any project is starting on time. When you spend too much time gathering information, you can actually put off the beginning of a project until it’s too late. Research can be beneficial work, but it’s easy to let deliberation and worry take its place. Those things are not really work, though they often feel like it.

Sometimes you will end up with too much information. It can cloud your judgment and make decisive steps that much more difficult. I once hired a research assistant to help me with some sermon writing. Professional sermon researchers can be valuable to any pastor, but they must know how much and what type of information to pursue. In this case, the researcher handed me more than 200 pages of research, blog posts, book reviews, illustrations and more. It went on and on. The amount of research was overwhelming and basically useless.

4. Know when to walk away. Set a “no regrets” deadline, and stick to it. Put a date on your calendar in red pen. If you can’t make a decision to start the project by that time, then you won’t start it at all — and you won’t look back in regret. This can keep you from making hasty decisions, knowing that you’ve given yourself an out if you don’t feel ready to make the leap. But it can also help speed you along. As you see that deadline approaching, you’ll feel an urgency to get the information you need to look before you leap.

It’s always wise to look before you leap, but don’t get stuck staring over a cliff without taking any action. At times in ministry, you will start something new that feels uncomfortable and makes you anxious. That’s normal. But unless you take the leap, you’ll never finish. So, what are you waiting for? Get going before it’s too late!

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