Whether you’re a business owner, entrepreneur, manager or employee, you’ve probably heard some of the following statements:

  1. What if I get my certification in X? It can help my career and also help us sell that service or product we’re working on.
  2. What if we change the way we collaborate? It will be more positive.
  3. What if we change this process or buy this tool for the team, so things get done quicker and more efficiently?

What if…

Saying “what if” is like a version of the Broadway musical “If/Then.” The premise is that the choices you make daily ultimately affect the life you live and, in this case, the career you have and the people around you. But what-ifs on their own don’t make you accountable for actually putting anything into action. Instead, you’re just hypothetically suggesting actions without taking them.

So, how do you turn your or your team’s what-ifs into whens? You simply get more self-aware. Call yourself or your team on what-ifs instantly, and hold everyone accountable without letting it go. For instance, each time you hear someone say a “What if…” or a “How about…” or a “Can you…” without any follow-up, the chance is that request or statement just went into a big black hole of never returning. A client recent gave me the example of working at a big technology company where what-ifs were discussed in every meeting, but then they were never heard of again. They would have repeat meetings, and nothing would get done because no one was accountable for their actions.

Small or large, every company can relate. I remember being a junior member of a team listening to my manager constantly making comments about “what if we did this” or “what if we do that.” If we had, we could have been more successful as a company. But, none of those what-ifs ever got moved to an action list where teammates were held accountable.

For example, here are some top things in business I notice that people push off instead of taking action and holding themselves accountable for:

  • Networking
  • Finding a new job
  • Hard conversations with a manager or team member
  • Writing
  • Brainstorming/creative ideation
  • Cleaning your office
  • Reading
  • Taking a beneficial seminar or class
  • Deadlines that should matter to the business
  • Professional, company, product, service and client goals
  • Positively challenging the people they manage

Therefore, below are some simple tips to move what-ifs into actions:

  1. If it’s your idea, determine immediately if it’s a priority for the business or team versus other priorities that exist. If it is, then enlist a team member to accomplish it or take action yourself by creating a sprint with a timeframe or just giving a simple deadline. If it’s not an immediate priority, use a project management software like Basecamp, or set calendar reminders to make sure you revisit the action in the time discussed.
  2. If it’s a longer-term action, like a certification or class that may contribute to your product or services roadmap, establish a timeframe with your boss or team that makes sense.
  3. If it’s hard, do it first. Business 101, right? Wrong. Often, people do easy checklist items first and leave the hard things for later in the day when their brains hurt the most.
  4. If you tell someone you’re going to do something, you absolutely must do it. I call this the Paula Long on Mutual Accountability tip. Long is the co-founder and CEO of DataGravity, a Metis client. In explaining mutual accountability to the New York Times, she said, “You and I have a contract that we’re going to get something done by a particular time. You need to make sure that you meet that contract with the same level of quality I agree to meet it with.” If you don’t, people remember, and you lose respect.
  5. If you’re the boss, be realistic about what you can handle. If you completed every idea you ever had, that would be great. But, ultimately, you can’t, and it’s important you and your team have a focus to make sure you accomplish the important goals.

It’s important to reflect and revisit what came out of each day. Be real with yourself and your team about what you want and can accomplish. If you don’t, you’ll be a “what if” person instead of a person who puts ideas and tasks into action.