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Paradox of the week – The First 90 Days

Mar 18, 2016 | Paradox of the Week

This Friday, another installment of the Paradox of the Week.[*] And since it’s coming up on ninety days since I started this blog, I thought a closer look at Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days (2003, Harvard Business Review Press) would be appropriate:

According to Watkins, the “fundamental goal” of his book is to “provide new leaders with practical frameworks for diagnosing their situations and developing their own customized transition acceleration plans [my emphasis]” (p. 11). Why? Because in Watkins’ eyes “the actions you take [as a leader] during your first three months…will largely determine whether you succeed or fail” (p. 1) “Your goal,” he furthermore posits, “should be to arrive as rapidly as possible at the breakeven point, where you are net contributor…” (p. 2). Time, it seems, is of the essence.

But if this is true, it then seems odd to find Watkins’ text peppered with statements advising readers to be deliberate, and not to move too fast. For example (my emphasis in each case):

  • “Few new leaders take the time to think through systematically about their learning priorities.” (p. 35)
  • “…gradually widen your focus…” (p. 54)
  • “The skills that contribute to success…are more akin to farming than hunting” (p. 68).
  • “Time urgency is less extreme…” (same page)
  • “[Some leaders] risk…moving too fast…” (same page)
  • “There is no need for urgent early action…” (p. 70)
  • “Fortunately, you will have time if you give yourself permission to move cautiously…” (same page)
  • Take some time to assign the pieces in your new portfolio…” (p. 73)
  • “…you can afford to take more time and plan.” (p. 85).
  • “…you should engage in something akin to guerilla warfare, slowly chipping at their resistance…” (p. 99)
  • Take some time to plan…” (p. 111)
  • ‘’If it takes some more time…then so be it.” (p. 121)
  • “Aligning an organization is like preparing for a long sailing trip.” (p. 135)
  • “…plan for bigger changes later…” (p. 141)
  • “More fundamental changes should wait…” (p. 142)
  • “It is worthwhile to spend some time thinking…” (p. 166)
  • “…take a moment to consider the alternatives.” (p.171)
  • “So take the time…” (p. 192)
  • “…transitions are marathons, not sprints.” (p. 216)


And finally, I’d just like to point out that in Becoming a Manager (2003)—also published by Harvard Business Review Press, by the way—Professor Linda Hill offers the following thought from her own studies of new managers transitioning into the role:

“Take ninety days to see what you have. It takes that long to get behind the numbers…” (p. 169)


See you next week.


[*]An instance in which a business or management “expert”/author/advice-giver/guru offers contradictory, or otherwise paradoxical advice, typically without any apparent awareness of having done so. For more on why this is such a common occurrence, please see: “Why you can throw out that management advice book (parts 1,2&3).”