Bias for action!

April 1, 2019

“Have a bias toward action—let’s see something happen now. You can break that big plan into small steps and take the first step right away.”
– Indira Gandhi, first lady Prime Minister of India.

The phrase ‘bias for action’ first put forth from the late Indian Prime Minister has become something of a buzzword these days, with many influencers, marketers, entrepreneurs talking about the same as a key contributor to individual, product, and organizational success.

Bias for action is: when you have a choice, you choose action over inaction. It means that you do not spend much time hypothesizing, scenario playing, or debating your approach to arrive at the perfect one. It means you do not hang around or wait for inspiration to strike you (we all know that will never actually happen). You act. You do what you can, when you can.

A bias for action means that taking action is your default state. When most people do things, they have to decide to do them. When you have a bias for action, you automatically do things; not doing things is what takes a decision.

This is considered to be a part of design thinking and it forms the cornerstone of the agile methodology of project management or project development. This ideology is in direct contrast to the confounding ‘analysis paralysis’ where over-thinking or over-analyzing a scenario can lead to it becoming ‘paralyzed’, ie, the situation is not resolved as no action is taken. The situation may present itself as too complex and no decision is reached due to the fear of further complicating or worsening the problem than solving it. A person may seek an optimal solution but may not act fearing the consequences of an error.

Analysis paralysis is when the fear of potential consequences of error outweigh the benefits of expected outcome or the potential of success, and this perceived dissonance precludes decision-making in an unconscious effort to preserve status quo. One gets overloaded considering the myriad options and feel overwhelmed in the situation that may cause this paralysis, preventing one from reaching a decision/conclusion. It can become a deal beaker when in time-sensitive and critical situations, where a decision needs to be reached timely but the person concerned is unable to respond fast enough, causing a bigger problem than they would be dealing with had they reached a decision.

Both the concepts—bias for action and analysis paralysis—are not new and the references to the same can be found as far back as ancient history, such as in one of Aesop’s fables called The Fox and the Cat, where the fox boasts of knowing hundreds of ways of escaping while the cat knows only one. But, when they hear the hounds close by, the cat scampers up a tree using her only one option while the fox in his confusion about the best way gets caught by the hounds. The fable ends with the moral, ‘Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon’. Alfred Henry Lewis, while commenting on Theodore Roosevelt and politics, surmised it eloquently, “The best thing is to do the right thing; the next best is to do the wrong thing; the worst thing of all things is to stand perfectly still.”

The concept of ‘bias for action’ is a reminder that it is not just the big ambitious idea that matters but the daily persistence in pursuit of that idea that really counts. Woody Allen famously said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” And Thomas Edison is often quoted saying, “Genius is 99 percent perspiration, one percent inspiration.”

When you consider the life of anyone who has accomplished anything worth mentioning, that is inevitably what you will find. NFL Hall of Fame Bill Parcells used to keep a sign posted in the locker room that read ‘Blame Nobody. Expect Nothing. Do Something’. Whenever next you find yourself stuck in the dogma of analysis paralysis, pause and ask yourself what value your analysis will add and what are the benefits of the same.  Try to break free from the dull and ornery–get going–be inspired.  Make it work, make it happen.

How do you translate that to application? You can increase the sense of urgency and bias for action with intentional effort. Below are six strategies that work:

01 set a clear goal and a definite time frame. Clarity of vision creates focus. Visualize the specific picture of your end goal and what you want to achieve; think along the lines of why it is important; what it will look like and how it would feel when you have achieved it. Setting an aggressive, yet realistic, date to accomplish your goal creates a sense of purpose and urgency. These put together motivate and move you towards accomplishment.

Remember: People buy into what they help in creating. It pays off to engage others to provide input so that they, too, can be motivated to action.

02 back yourself. Empower yourself to follow through on the purpose and urgency you have created for yourself. Build your self confidence and trust in your abilities by backing yourself. The stakes will be high, a single move could either put you and your organization miles ahead of its competitors or it could become the scarlet letter derailing your career. There will be considerable pressure not to make a mistake.

Developing knowledge and skills is the quickest and shortest way to set you on the path to build your confidence the self-confidence of your team. Most important, you must provide the trust and freedom to fail in pursuit of your vision if you want people to take the risk that comes with urgency and action.

03 identify your action agenda. Planning, in its traditional sense, is supposed to identify all the strategies and steps for successful implementation, it is this level of detailing that slows you down.

An action agenda, however, is a living document that briefly outlines the steps to achieve your vision. Start by outlining in broad terms the actions that you must take as far as you can visualize based on what you know. Do not fret in case your execution and development plans are not quite complete before you begin. You can always flesh them out and update them as you go revisiting and improving at every milestone. Be mindful of the barriers that must be overcome and the talent you may need to support your efforts.

04 use your time judiciously. Optimize your time utilization by using meetings to strategize. Enable reporting of progress prior to the meeting so that everyone is informed and can prepare. Thereby, free up your time in the meeting to discuss the status and decide next steps. This will keep on point and improve accountability and help you maintain the sense of urgency.

05 be flexible. Be open to adjusting the process and agenda as you go. Consider all options and if needed, modify the deadline only as a last resort. Be conscious that moving targets are much more difficult to aim and hit successfully; do not fall in the trap of automatically pushing the target date to accommodate delays.

Try other alternatives such as adjusting the processes and workflow or add more steps to your agenda first.

06 recognize and reinforce effort. Reward results. Everyone wants to be appreciated for their hard work. Sincere recognition maintains momentum toward the goal. Just remember to hold the ultimate reward for the delivery of results.

Nolan Bushnell, founder, Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time, said, “Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off, and does something about it who makes a difference.”

Remember… The road rarely rises up to meet you until you have begun walking.