Relentless – The Difference Between Motion And Action

Never mistake motion for action.
-Ernest Hemingway

One of an entrepreneur’s greatest strengths is their relentless pursuit of a goal. But few realize how this differs from most of the population. Watching others try to solve problems reminded me why entrepreneurs are different.

Progress Report
Last week I happened to be sitting in my wife’s office as she was on the phone to my daughter in college. Struggling with one of her classes my daughter had assured us that she was asking for help – and was reporting on her progress (or lack of it).

She had sent several emails to the resource center asking for help. She was also trying to set up a meeting with her professor. All good, and all part of the “when you’re stuck, ask for help” heuristic we taught our kids. But the interesting part for me was learning that in spite of her efforts no one had gotten back to her.

She believed she had done all things that could be expected from her and was waiting for the result.

I realized that my daughter had confused motion with action.

This reminded me of a conversation with one of my direct reports years before my daughter was born.

Status Report
At Ardent the marketing department was responsible for acquiring applications for our supercomputer. This required convincing software vendors to move their applications to our unique machine architecture. Not a trivial job considering our computer was one of the first parallel architectures, and our compiler required specific knowledge of our vector architecture to get the most out of it. Oh, and we had no installed customer base. I had hired the VP of marketing from a potential software partner who was responsible to get all this 3rd party software on our computer. Once he was on board, I sat down with him on a weekly basis to review our progress with our list of software vendors.

Think Different
I still remember the day I discovered that I thought about progress differently than other people. Our conversation went like this:

Me: Jim, how are we doing with getting Ansys ported?
Jim: Great, I have a bunch of calls into them.
Me: How are we doing on the Nastran port?
Jim: Wonderful, they said they’ll get back to me next month.
Me: How about Dyna 3D?
Jim: It’s going great, we’re on their list.

The rest of the progress report sounded just like this.

After hearing the same report for the nth week, I called a halt to the meeting. I had an executive who thought he was making progress. I thought he hadn’t done a damn thing.


The Difference Between Motion and Action
One of Jim’s favorite phrases was, “I got the ball rolling with account x.” He thought that the activities he was doing – making calls, setting up meetings, etc. – was his job. In reality they had nothing to do with his job. His real job – the action – was to get the software moved onto our machine. Everything he had done to date was just the motion to get the process rolling. And so far the motion hadn’t accomplished anything. He was confusing “the accounting” of the effort with achieving the goal. But Jim felt that since he was doing lots of motion, “lots of stuff was happening.” In reality we hadn’t gotten any closer to our goal than the day we hired him. We had accomplished nothing – zero, zilch, nada. In fact, we would have been better off if we hadn’t hired him as we wouldn’t have confused a warm body with progress.

When I explained this to him, the conversation got heated. “I’ve been working my tail off for the last two months…” When he calmed down, I asked him how much had gotten accomplished. He started listing his activities again. I stopped him and reminded him that I could have hired anyone to set up meetings, but I had brought him in to get the software onto our machine. “How much progress have we made to that goal?”  “Not much,” he admitted.

Entrepreneurs are Relentless
Jim’s goal was to get other companies to put their software on an unfinished, buggy computer with no customers. While a tough problem, not an insurmountable one for an entrepreneur focused on the objective, not the process.

This was my fault. It had taken me almost two months to realize that other people didn’t see the world the same way I did. My brain was wired to focus on the end-point and work backwards, removing each obstacle in my path or going around them all while keeping the goal in sight. Jim was following a different path.

Focused on the process, he defined progress as moving through a step on his to-do list, and feeling like progress was being made when he checked them off. The problem was his approach let others define the outcome and set the pace.

The difference between the two ways of thinking is why successful entrepreneurs have the reputation for being relentless. To an outsider it looks like they’re annoyingly persistent. The reality is that their eyes are on the prize.

Teaching Moment
If you’re not born with this kind of end-goal focus, you can learn this skill.

My wife and I called our daughter back, declared a family “teaching moment,” and explained the difference between motion and action, and asked her what else she could do to get help for class. She realized that more persistence and creativity was required in getting to the right person. The next day, she was in the resource center having figured out how to get the help she needed.

Lessons Learned

  • Most people execute linearly, step by step
  • They measure progress by “steps they did”
  • Entrepreneurs focus on the goal
  • They measure progress by “accomplishing their goals”

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45 Responses

  1. Hmm… Not to get too meta here… But if the point of this post is to teach us how to distinguish motion from action (even partly), I didn’t get much help.

    All of us get into spots where we’re confusing motion for action. At bottom, this is a measurement problem, made more difficult by the fact that you don’t often know very much about what’s in the black box you’re measuring.

    • I think he made a fairly clear point – the difference, as I understand, is whether you consider after a step along the way whether the ball is in someone else’s court or whether you consider the responsibility for accomplishing the goal to still be yours, even if someone else needs to do something for it to move along. With the latter mindset, you won’t hesitate to “push”.

    • Distinguishing them is quite easy, at least if you take the relentless part to heart. If you still haven’t achieved your goal you’re still just doing motion.

      Action will consist of achieving the results you aimed for. So if you’re still waiting for the results you want, you’re practicing motion.

      If you don’t know what you want that’s a different problem altogether.

  2. Benjamin Franklin is also attributed with a different phrasing of that quote, “Never confuse motion with action.” Either source, either wording, it is one of my favorites.

  3. Steve, you put into words something that I’ve been thinking a lot lately.
    This is why I strive to work with efficient, not effective people.

    Most people don’t realize that being *effective* and doing the things that get you closer to a goal is very different from being *efficient* and reaching that goal by the most practical and economical way possible.

    Like killing a person with a nuke is effective, but using a .45 is efficient.

    You can get away with effective behavior in a large company. But in a startup, it is very important to be surrounded by efficient people.

    PS1- I run a small software startup in Brazil and just found out about Customer Development and your blog (I’ve been reading and listening to everything I can get my hands on online, like Venturehacks and Ries’ blog). Your methodologies have been life changing for me and my company. Thank you!

    PS2- Is there any way I can buy your book in PDF format? I couldn’t find it anywhere here in Brazil and International shipping takes weeks to get here.

  4. Just to be concrete, what exactly would/did you suggest your executive do other than what he was doing? “Be more persistent” is vague. I’ve been on the side of your potential partners, and I know that often too much ‘persistence’ is offputting.

    • Paul Graham tells u more about it:

      U are right, just beeing relentless is not enough. u have to be creative, too.

      But I don’t think that more concreteness as a direction+examples leads to good learning results. Try to figure it out for Urself. Otherwise U won’t be satisfied. And yes, to learn it u should be persistant and creative, or with Pauls words: Relentlessly Resourceful. 😉

  5. Reiterating Cujo’s question: so how did you specifically turn Jim’s “motion” into “action”? How many 3rd party software applications did you get ported, how long did it take, and what were the steps you took?

  6. Awesome article. In my own life it’s been a fun learning experience to find the right action at the right time. Making less motion mean more action is the key. Isn’t that what the TAO says?

    Best, Brad

  7. Most of the comments seem to be missing the point. Which is that there are two general types of people, and it’s important to see that distinction.

    The deeper meaning as I see it is, if you’re an entrepreneur, you should damn well make sure you know what type of person you are–if you’re not about end goals, you’re screwed. Also, if you’re an entrepreneur, make sure you hire and manage people so that they’re focusing on end goals and not motion or, once again, you’re screwed.

  8. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. There are people in the dates and tasks world (u have to do and u have to be finished with that on day ) and there are people in the goals and obstacles world (I want to see , and I can’t make that happen without a yes from , a sign from and the money from ). The idea is not new and not big for itself. But U really helped to clarify things. Thanks, Steve!

  9. Excellent post Steve.

    @Michael: I think the point of the post was more to get people thinking about the fact that just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean that you’re doing the right things and making progress towards your goals. Sometimes, you need to sit down and think about what it is that you’re doing to truly get a sense of whether you’re moving in the right direction.

    You can almost think of Action as “Moving in a direction, but not necessarily the right one”. It’s just a bit more nefarious than that because on paper it looks like you got something done, but in reality you are no closer to your goal than you were before you did it. More of a side-step if you will.

  10. Are there any plans for “Four Steps to the Epiphany” to be released as an ebook? I’d love to have it on my Kindle!

    • Richard,
      Wish I could.

      It turns out that none of the figures, graphs and charts will display as is on the Kindle. They all have to be redrawn and reformatted.

      What I thought would be a simple port is actually a major project I don’t have time to manage.

      I’d welcome other ideas.


  11. I have a little different opinion about this…

    I think is not about whether person is “entrepreneur” or not. It is about whether person truly
    believes into end-goal and truly want to achieve it.

    Everybody is entrepreneurs – every single person is “relentlessly resourceful”.
    But entrepreneurship spirit raises only after one starts truly wanting and believing into end goal.
    I think it is impossible to act as entrepreneur if you have no real love toward end goal.

    In order words, if a person truly wants (needs, loves) the end goal, then I think that person will act as entrepreneur. Think about how people become “Relentlessly Resourceful” during wars.
    Or in case of love for that matter.

    If the end goal really in your heart, then you will be act as entrepreneur to achieve that goal.

  12. cool!

  13. […] The difference between motion and action – or, as one of the comments note, “Never confuse motion with action” – Ben Franklin. Leo has a better post, IMO, The Little Rules of Action. […]

  14. […] Relentless – The Difference Between Motion And Action « Steve Blank […]

  15. “The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.”

    — Miyamoto Musashi (The Book of Five Rings)

  16. Just some quick comments:

    1) I believe that “process” and “progress” are very important concepts, however they are only effective if the intention of both are aligned towards getting things done. It is the *intention* that is important.

    2) The process described above wasn’t making *real* progress because its intention was perpetuating “motion” and not focused on measurable results. I believe it’s important to have the right processes in place and typically those are minimal, focused on adaptability/learning/experimentation. I believe this is in accordance what Blank/Ries have been talking about.

    3) Startups need to be both: efficient and effective. Doing ineffective things efficiently doesn’t provide any value. One might be very efficient at “motion”, but that doesn’t make any valuable progress.

    4) I actually prefer the concepts of intention, aspiration and attention. Clarify your intention, be mindful of your aspiration, and then focus your attention on achieving those goals. Get the corporate learning process right, make continual progress over time and be persistent.

  17. good post. process should not be confused with results!

  18. Hi All (including Steve),

    I am much inspired by Steve’s and Eric Ries’s thoughts on entrepreneurship. So much so, I took a Customer Development approach to my startup, which I wrote up as a Case Study for the Google Group Lean Startup Circle. Eric revisited it here:

    Anyhow, I thought I would leave a comment as I am looking for a lead developer who is oriented towards Customer Development. Perhaps some of you reading this are interested or know of someone who may be.

    If so, please see my post here:

  19. I love this point! It is so hard to find a place to work as an employee where they GET this. So many places would rather hear that for 4 days you did “meetings, planning, documents” than hear that you need them to stop asking for status for 2 days so you can get a TON of progress made.

    I spent 3 days doing this stupid process and it would have been better for me and the company if saying, “Leave me alone for 3 days and you’ll have much more work done,” was acceptable. I could have made scripts to do all of the work I did manually but they needed to see lots of motion and effort rather than letting me solve the problem at hand using my skills.

    The same thing is annoying with the “always improving” crowd. What if you need to cross a valley to get from the foothills to the mountain? Companies are sometimes unwilling to take the few moments drop in motion to get major action accomplished. Real progress comes in bursts. It ebs and flows. Trying to make it consistent is folly. I wish that progress was measured in larger increments rather than rewarding the person who plods along with acceptable slow pace each day. Real progress works in breakthroughs, at least when dealing with complex problems and creativity.

    Thank you for your insights.

    • Lanette,
      By definition large companies are process-driven. It doesn’t mean they can’t innovate, but over time they’ve established what they believe are the “correct” ways of getting things done.

      If you continue to find yourself frustrated by process, you may have all the symptoms of being an entrepreneur. Join a small company where they’re more interested in results than the paperwork.


  20. […] Read the article: Relentless – The Difference Between Motion And Action […]

  21. I am fond of the phrasing: “Do not confuse activity and progress”. I do not recall where I picked it up but it has helped me a lot with my teams. And they often tell me after many years they still use it.

  22. Another way of picking up the “end-goal focus”: read, & re-read “The Goal”. Fantastic book, and applicable across all disciplines of life.

  23. In the military we call this backward planning, in project management this is called passing backward through the critical path. You start off with the goal and work backward to the start point. This approach helps because as work your way toward your start point your identifying issues and obstacles that could proclude you from success.

  24. Relentless.
    Although the word has a slight tinge of the negative, it is certainly fitting.

    I think we share the same view on this one Steve (Legendary leaders just don’t quit). But even the most tireless and dogged of souls needs to question their target and focus from time to time.

    Entrepreneurs are after a moving target after all, and need to have methods in place that help adjust their activities. The speed in which an entrepreneur can reach a dead end is probably highly correlated with their success (they know what doesn’t work fast).

    Jedi wisdom Steve. I can’t thank you enough for sharing here.

  25. […] the potential of an object) vs. heat (energy expended but with no future value, like friction).   Steve Blank recently made a memorable post on it: Sisyphus Enjoyed His Daily […]

  26. Seemed to me like the difference between an owner and a hired hand. An owner needs a result, a hired hand (unless behaving like an owner) follows the menu. The trick is to imbue owner type ambition in some (not all) hires.

  27. […] putting in crazy hours on your new startup project but not making any progress. You perceive motion, but aren’t taking needed actions to get you closer to your goal. Prioritizing the stuff that matters is critical to building a […]

  28. Great stuff. Thank you for sharing this.

  29. As an entrepreneur/founder, I want to clarify to my team what is expected out of them in what time. This helps them plan and judge what they are trying to achieve by flagging Motion and Action during weekly or monthly review so that they stay focused on goals/prizes.
    While I thought if goal is clear and person is involved, he achieves results but identification of motion and action makes him efficient and not let him waste time and energy. It also help him see if progress is being made or he is just stuck in process.
    Thanks Steve.

  30. I am responsible for evangelizing an API that is disruptive to an established industry dominated by old guard, old think. It seems like a mountain, and yes, it is easy to almost substitute the process of lead gen and followup for closing.

    We must get established EDI companies and new SAAS B2B platform operators to adopt our EDI API, with all of its amazing advantages. But, they need to fold this tech into their SDLC, which is no small commitment. So, so we campaign the largest OEMs who never call, but who could, if we could persuade the, make us in one swell foop?

    Or do we culture the upstart cloudsters who can’t make substantive deals right away, but create a real foundation to the ecosystem of the ECGridOS Web Services API?

    There are 24 hours in a day – I need to sleep at least 5. Ideas anyone,?

    Oh , yes, many potential prospects are glad to request developer credentials for a free account, but never log in. Conversion ideas?

  31. Hi Steve- fantastic post. This one really spoke to me. Coming from a large company I can see how this kind of step by step measurement of progress can happen. From now forward I’m going to reorient my thinking toward accomplishing the end goal rather than reviewing my progress as a bunch of steps I’ve taken. John

  32. […] tip to Steve Blank for originally writing about motion and […]

  33. […] Hat tip to Steve Blank for originally writing about motion and […]

  34. Motion – swinging the bat
    Motion – hitting the ball to the short stop
    Action – hitting the ball over the fence

  35. Good write up. Now i know how not to get stuck in motion and to act.

  36. A very useful skill to learn – we learned in High School – is to go for the end report when writing a report – so you start with the final copy. This is different from how many are taught – outline first, put down random thoughts, get started with any thoughts. By thinking how you would write the final copy first helps you write reports fast. Oh the memories of Ardent….

  37. Seems like we got a lot of motion enabled folks trying to over-explain or sidestep a long look in the mirror.

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