A view from Jim Carroll

Baitless fishing: beware the seductions of the quiet life

BBH's former chairman warns many people in business are engaged in baitless fishing: doing things without getting things done.

"We’re busy doin’ nothin’
Working the whole day through,
Tryin’ to find lots of things not to do.
We’re busy goin’ nowhere.
Isn’t it just a crime?
We’d like to be unhappy, but
We never do have the time."
-Bing Crosby, Busy Doing Nothing (Johnnie Burke/Jimmy van Heusen) 

When I was a kid I used to go fishing at South Weald with my schoolmate Neil.

I loved the peace and tranquility; sitting by the water’s edge, chatting about our packed lunches, polo neck sweaters and Prog Rock. But I didn’t like messing around with maggots and removing hooks from gurning roach. I determined secretly to fish without bait, thereby retaining the peace and tranquility but missing out on the muck. For a time this strategy went very well and it worked for the unknowing Neil too: he celebrated landing one fish after another whilst my tally remained resolutely on zero. But eventually Neil tired of the lack of competition and confronted me. When I revealed what I’d been up to, he refused to go fishing with me ever again.

I think many people in business are engaged in baitless fishing: keeping our heads down, avoiding conflict, choosing the safe option; never challenging the boss, rarely offering a point of view, always toeing the line. Doing things without getting things done.

Just as it’s a natural human emotion to seek credit, reward and recognition, it’s equally natural to avoid attention and opt for the quiet life. 

We can fill our working day with status meetings, updates and catch-ups. We can write lists, file contact reports, adjust Gantt charts. We can attend courses, conferences and multi-disciplinary away days. We can meet random people for coffee in the name of networking. We can walk around the office a bit in the name of management. We can jump on a plane and visit some "key local markets". We can do all of these things without really progressing the client’s or the agency’s core agenda.

Of course these activities have some value. They are the stuff of business, the necessary everyday tasks that keep wheels turning and plates spinning. They sustain momentum. But in the digital era momentum may not be enough. 

There are two senses of the word inertia. On the one hand it means doing nothing; on the other it means repeating an action or movement over and over again. Nowadays both amount to the same thing. In a world characterized by constant change, steaming steadily along the same line at the same speed is rarely helpful. Inertia can be a dominant force in all our lives and we must fight it. Increasingly we all need to be laying new track across new frontiers.

The most common excuse for not tackling the bigger, tougher business decisions is the pressure of the imminent and the immediate. "We’ve got to get through this current crisis; see out this week, this day, this meeting." "We’ve not got the time, the resource or the energy to address the future right now." The greatest enemy of the long-term is the short-term. But the short term and long term are intimately related. As the strategist Cathy Reid once observed: 

"The long term is just a series of short terms. You have to decide which short term your long term starts with."

Of course, ultimately baitless fishing is unsuccessful and unfulfilling. Within a business the metabolism slows, appetite wanes, morale dips; and then the competition outflanks you, the clients leave you, the numbers condemn you. For the individual, work becomes a job, not a career; an occupation, not a vocation. And, as I learned to my cost, the baitless fisherman is always found out. 

So we all have to set aside excuses, reorder our priorities and resist the forces of inertia. We must take a deep breath and reach into the seething maggot box of business; bait that hook and cast our line into the deep blue ponds of the future.

Good luck with your new chapter, Campaign.

Jim Carroll is the former chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty. He writes about culture and commerce at jimcarrollsblog.com.