The act of shoveling snow has always served as a versatile metaphor for pretty much anything you need to say about hard work. Ask anyone who's ever done it. 

Andrew Powell, who leads a group of 55 application developers at Open Systems Technologies in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently compared the act of shoveling snow to the opening stages of a complex project. In a post on the OST blog, he wrote: 

Staring out my kitchen window at 12 heavy inches of snow burying my driveway, it was daunting to imagine how I'd get the driveway clear, and just thinking about the work involved seemed more than I thought I could take. I'm not as young as I once was, and it sure seems like they're making heavier snow than they used to. Plus--when did my back start to hurt all the time?

Does that sound familiar? To Powell, 44, who has worked at $160 million, 235-employee OST since 2014, his excuses sounded like what he has often heard from clients whenever they are embarking on a massive project. They don't want to begin. And they have every justification in the world for their own procrastination. 

For instance, a recent OST client is a company specializing in medical and insurance billing. It relied on a 10-year-old software system to handle billing. It knew it needed to switch to a new system before the old one became obsolete. Yet it was hesitant. The billing system was the lifeblood of the company. And while archaic, it continued to make money. "So the idea of doing anything to it was anathema to their understanding of how to be successful," says Powell. "They just kept this dinosaur alive, because the idea of touching it, testing it, and risking it seemed overwhelming." 

You can see the parallels between Powell's two examples of procrastination. Powell didn't want to start shoveling because the job seemed like it was too much to handle. The billing company didn't want to begin a software migration because the thought of abandoning the old system seemed like undergoing heart surgery. So Powell waited until 12 inches had piled up. And the billing company waited until 10 years had passed. Both were paralyzed with worry. 

Powell's insight, like that of many in the business world, was expressed by a simple maxim: "No matter what end result you seek, there's only one way to get there. You've got to start," he wrote on the OST blog. "It may sound silly, may sound obvious, may seem like advice not worth giving. But we're an easily overwhelmed species. Nothing ever got finished that didn't first get started."

In the case of this particular client, Powell and his team did what they usually do: They performed a piecemeal software migration. First they moved the non-essential pieces, while allowing the incumbent system to remain running. That allowed the client to envision the new possibilities. Optimism and expectation began to replace the panic. "You can see the fear melting away," says Powell. "And it becomes excitement instead of being afraid it's the end of the world." 

In hindsight, it all makes sense. Yet it still leaves one question: Why is it hard to apply business insights to one's personal habits? "There are so many lessons I gracefully help my clients to understand that I somehow neglect to apply to myself," says Powell, who pleads guilty not only to snow-shoveling procrastination, but also to attic-organizing procrastination and kitchen-cleaning avoidance.

But now he's ever mindful of how important a first step is, when it comes to moving from where you are, to where you need to be.

Published on: Feb 15, 2016