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Neglected but Necessary: A Bias for Action

Think about this: we’re just days away from a new decade.


Looking back on the 2010s, think about all your ups and downs, all your challenges and accomplishments.


Is there anything you regret?


If so, chances are you're more regretful of inaction than action. A wealth of research suggests that people, especially in their later years, are more troubled by what could have been than what went wrong.


There's something in our conscience that nags at us for leaving too much on the table, or for knowing we never meaningfully chased our fullest potential.


Mistakes hurt, but not as much as missed opportunities.

Buying a motorcycle

Looking back on 2019, one of the things I’m most thankful for is going out on a limb to get my motorcycle license, and buying my Triumph Bonneville (pictured in all its glory above).


There were plenty of opportunities to stall, make excuses, and second-guess myself: there are better ways to spend a cold March weekend than riding an old, beat up bike around a parking lot. There are more prudent things to spend money on than a used motorcycle. And, needless to say, there are safer hobbies out there.


But I’m glad that every step of the way, I took action. What started as a personal challenge and experiment has become an obsession, with its own set of aspirations and goals. I’m not saying everyone should go out and get a motorcycle (1), but thanks to a Bias for Action, I don’t have to spend my life wondering “what if?”


A Bias for Action can also pay dividends in your professional life. Unfortunately, as a capability, it's often neglected, undervalued, or even inadvertently discouraged by most managers and organizations.


An overlooked capability

A Bias for Action is the ability and tendency to make decisions, and act on them, quickly. It’s an innate skill for some, and for others a capability that is honed over time.


My first exposure to the concept was an interesting article on remote work, with the author claiming a Bias for Action is a non-negotiable key to successful remote working. This is true. But even more generally, it’s a prerequisite for any successful corporate career, and an absolute necessity for entrepreneurs and the self-employed.


In fact, while ignored by most other organizations, a “Bias for Action” is one of Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles:

“Bias for Action: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.”

What it is not

A Bias for Action is not to be confused with a bias for impulsivity, which is uncalculated or spontaneous action. And it is certainly not blindly taking orders or rule-following – anyone can take action when they’re told exactly what to do.


It might be valuable to understand the concept by recognizing its opposites: avoidance, getting “stuck,” indecision, and analysis paralysis, where overthinking or overanalysis gets in the way of decision-making.


In some ways, we need to reset our circuitry so planning (and CYA) is not always the default, or worse, the end-all-be-all. This brings to mind another anecdote…


Kindergartners vs MBAs

The Marshmallow Challenge is a famous learning activity where teams collaborate to build the tallest free-standing structure using 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, one yard of tape, and one yard of string, all topped by a marshmallow. Believe it or not, MBA students are routinely trounced by kindergartners. Forbes columnist Nathan Furr proposes an explanation:


“MBAs want to plan their way to an optimal outcome and then execute on the plan. Furthermore, adding incentives, like prizes or cash only makes the problem worse... In contrast, kindergartners do something much different. Instead of wasting time trying to establish who is in charge or make a plan, they simply experiment over and over until they find a model that works.”

It’s a problem of planning when teams should be experimenting. Or in other words, a measure of Bias for Action, which to some extent appears to be bred out of MBA students throughout the course of their studies.


Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.

At the end of the day, a Bias for Action involves acting quickly in the face of uncertainty. It is ability not to freeze. To move forward despite some open questions, without a bulletproof plan, without considering every single possible alternative, without adequate input or advice. To make a habit of taking initiative. To fail quickly, and adjust as needed. To understand the minimum effective dose of risk assessment.


Most importantly, a Bias for Action enables you to do the hard but necessary things. The ones most people avoid. The challenging and scary things standing between you and your goals. In the words of Tim Ferriss:

“The hard choices – what we most fear doing, asking, saying – these are very often exactly what we most need to do.”

Whether you’re experimenting with a new hobby, building a marshmallow tower, or executing an all-or-nothing pivot in your career or startup, a Bias for Action is an often overlooked, but invaluable capability.


Next steps

Now that you understand the Bias for Action, it’s important to recognize how it factors into your life, career, or venture. Think about times you’ve taken action despite being apprehensive or uneasy, how it felt to do so, and the outcome.


Reflect on times when you were indecisive, especially when delay or extensive analysis ended up costing you in the end.


How has a Bias for Action benefited you? How will you make it a routine or habit? How will you measure its impact? I'd love to hear what you're thinking or planning for 2020 — DM or comment on Instagram @theexeccoach or shoot me an email at info@bringambition.com!


Notes:

1.) ... but I would recommend trying your local Basic Rider Course. Like me, you could be pleasantly surprised!

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