The risks of a bias for action

In their 1982 bestseller, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. listed eight themes that explained, in their estimation, the success of the companies they studied.  A few of their principles, including “stick to the knitting” and “stay close to the customer” entered business parlance, and one–maintain “a bias for action”–entrenched itself as a fundamental dogma of management practice.

Like all dogmas, “bias for action” captures an important truth. Peters and Waterman defined the principle as a tendency toward speedy decision making–”getting on with it,” rather than getting bogged down in endless meetings. Their exhortation to accelerate decision making provided a much needed fillip to the excessive bureaucracy that slowed action in many large corporations in the early 1980s.

In volatile markets, however, executives often use a bias for action as an excuse to skip the hard work of assessing a messy situation. In an earlier post, I argued that navigating turbulent markets requires managers to lead four distinct types of discussions: Conversations to make sense of ambiguous situations; to make choices on what to do, not do, and stop doing; to make things happen; and finally to revise assumptions and make mid-course corrections in light of new information.

Managers often invoke a bias for action to bypass sense-making and dive into the concrete details of execution. A dysfunctional bias for action is endemic among “take-charge” or “gung-ho” executives who excel at getting things done, but dread the open-ended discussions required to understand situations where complexity, ambiguity, and incomplete data preclude easy answers. To avoid this discomfort, they bypass discussions to make sense and dive right into making choices or working out the details of implementation. By jumping too quickly to discussions on how to take the hill, however, these teams often end up attacking the wrong hill.

In stable markets, the costs of shortchanging discussions to make sense are limited. Absent environmental change, new situations typically resemble old ones. A manager’s gut feel based on years of experience generally hits the mark. In volatile markets, however, managers will face unprecedented situations that demand fresh analysis. Below are a few concrete actions leaders can take to counterbalance an excessive bias for action.

  • Don’t overestimate the value of experience. Many grey-haired executives pride themselves on their wealth of experience, and dismiss discussions to make sense as unnecessary.  Instead they draw on their past experience to quickly classify a situation and move to action. When the present differs from the past, well-worn expertise can be more liability than asset.
  • Include a team member who enjoys discussions to make sense. When a teams consists entirely of take-charge executives, they reinforce each other’s preference to get on with it. Including a research scientist or former management consultant, who enjoys these discussions can counter-balance an excessive bias for action–particularly when they take the lead in these conversations.
  • Push backwards towards assumptions, not forwards to actions. Managers cannot and should not banish action proposals. When these arise, however, they can dig backwards to unearth and examine the assumptions that underlie a plan of action, rather than pushing it forward to flesh out details of implementation. To surface underlying assumptions, managers can ask questions including: “If that’s the solution, what is the problem?”, “What would have to be true for that plan to work?”, and “What fresh data would convince us that this is the wrong course of action?”
  • Separate discussions to make sense from decision making. Discussions to make sense should answer the question “what is going on here?” while discussions to make choices address “what should we do?” Collapsing them into a single discussion degrades the answer to both questions. A leading professional services firm breaks their deliberations on important issues into three conversations: The first to discuss alternative interpretations of the situation; the second to debate a set of alternatives; and the last to decide on a course of action.

Leading in turbulent times

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Don Sull is professor of management practice in strategic and international management, and faculty director of executive education at London Business School. This blog is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, managers, and outside directors to lead more effectively in a turbulent world.

Over the past decade, Prof Sull has studied volatile industries including telecommunications, airlines, fast fashion, and information technology, as well as turbulent countries including Brazil and China, and found specific behaviours that consistently differentiate more, and less, successful firms. His conclusion is that actions, not an individual’s traits, increase the odds of success in turbulent markets, and these actions can be learned.