Cultivating Bias to Action
For individuals and organisations.
Bias to action is one of those phrases which has taken hold in the tech world. It’s listed as a requirement in job specs. Investors look for it when assessing deals. Founders espouse its virtues on Twitter. It’s one of the few corporate-speak phrases that I wish proliferated into the “everyday” world. Progress comes from actions not just ideas.
Most of us would probably agree that progress is a good thing. The world has lots of problems that need solving. As individuals we have dreams we long to fulfill. Yet, despite knowing that in order to change something we need, to *make* a change, many of us (myself included) get stuck in a state of inaction. Analysis-paralysis takes hold. Stories of why something can’t be done or won’t work out abound. At a company level, inaction can take the form of excessive planning cycles and endless working group discussions. The work around the work ends up superseding the actual work that needs to be done.
Inaction is a habit, and luckily, bias to action is a trait that anyone can cultivate. Learning this has had a profound positive impact both in my personal life and career. Below is an outline on how to develop a bias to action on an individual, team and org level.
Before diving into how to cultivate a bias to action, it’s worth clarifying that bias to action is not:
Bias to reactivity: Taking any action, especially a panic or anger fuelled one, is not always better than taking no action. Reactivity is what leads to cruel comments to colleagues which erode trust. It’s what leads to poor decision making where repeated ill-considered actions result in a downward spiral.
Bias to busywork: Research, analysis and planning are important but they can only take us so far. This type of work often masks the fact that we are not taking concrete actions towards our goals. Doing something isn’t the same as getting results.
Sometimes the best course of action is to quit. Other times it’s to take no action at all.
Cultivating Bias to Action on a Individual Level
Firstly, you need to decide if you want the situation to change, and if you’re willing to sacrifice energy to try to change it. Selective inaction is fine. Learned helplessness, however, can be a career and confidence killer. Ensure you’re choosing the former.
Secondly, do you believe you are someone who is stuck in a cycle of inaction? People who lack bias to action are often incredibly hard-working, but are prone to doing the types of work that don’t directly result in outcomes. Are you making decisions? Are you shipping products/processes that can be used by others? Can you pinpoint a change you made?
Struggling with enacting a bias to action is often due to one or more of the factors below:
Low self esteem: This can cause you to doubt your abilities and judgement. It can make you feel as if you don’t have the right to act, or are not the right person to take action.
Past experiences: Perhaps you grew up in an environment where mistakes were harshly criticised, people were constantly judged or you absorbed the message that other people were “supposed” to take charge e.g. authority figures, certain family members, wealthier people.
Environment you're operating in: Some organisations have atrophied to a state where they operate at a glacial pace, engulfed by bureaucracy. Some have amassed cultural traits which discourage action e.g. blame culture, risk averseness, taking a binary view of failures.
Reflect on if any of the points above resonate. Working through low self-esteem and past experiences might benefit from therapy or coaching. Dealing with an inactive org will require a strategy based on how that particular institution operates.
When aiming to cultivate a bias to action start by:
Creating the list
Write a list of all the reasons that prevent you from taking action. It may be easier to start with one specific situation if a life audit feels too taxing at this stage. Don’t edit, just write. No reason is too trivial or silly.
Cross-off any reason that is objectively legitimate e.g. action would be illegal, put your/someone else’s physical wellbeing in danger, cause a diplomatic incident etc. What you are left with is a list of beliefs. These are rules you have chosen to accept. They may be the norms of the society or organisation you operate in, but they are changeable.
Identify examples where you have seen others disprove your beliefs by taking action. Don’t judge or rationalise. Yes that person may be an “assh*le” or privileged in some way you are not. Ignore that for now.
Great, you now have a list that proves it is possible to take action. You just need to choose if you want to.
Review the list’s themes
Group your reasons for not taking action into themes. Is there anything that immediately stands out? Maybe it's a confidence issue that needs to be worked on. Or perhaps you have a crazy manager that you just need to get away from. Avoid being critical of yourself as you read through it. Treat it as if it were written as by a friend.
Accept that you *can* take action. However, the reality of life is that not all of us can take action in the same way. Discrimination feeds into how we’re treated. Financial concerns can influence our immediate path. Don’t let these things limit you, but be aware that it may need to be factored into your actions.
That’s it. There is no magical pill. To cultivate a bias to action, you need to take action. Repeatedly. Consistently. Choose a starting point (e.g. increasing your velocity of output at work, actually launching that podcast, cold emailing people you’d like to speak with etc.)
Create check–in points over the first few months. It’s easy to slip into old habits, but equally, after making a positive change, it’s easy to under-appreciate how far we’ve come. Use these check-ins to review your initial list, note any changes in your perception, at any outcomes that have occurred. Course correct as needed.
When you are taking more shots on target, you will experience more misses. Taking more actions will lead to more learning but it will also likely lead to more failures. Over time people tend to become immune to these failures (for the most part). In the beginning stages it can be helpful to treat it like a game, like the 100 days of rejection challenge, and to surround yourself with others who display a bias towards action.
Cultivating Bias to Action on a Team/Org Level
If you’re a manager, leader or founder whose frustrated by a lack of action there are three pillars that I recommend focussing on a starting point:
Removing organisation blockers: These are the processes and cultural norms that are preventing people in your organisation from taking action. Evaluate how action is treated. Do people default to “how it could be done” vs “reasons why it can’t be”? How are failures treated in the organisation? Encourage thoughtful risks. Praise them publicly. Is the organisation overly process focussed? Is this a help or a hindrance to getting work done? Do teams collaborate well together? Are incentives aligned across the organisation? Similar to above, write a list of all the perceived organisation action blockers, without judgement. Ask different parts of the org to contribute to this. Identify the ones you believe will be most impactful, and start investigating the root causes of the issues. Then, start implementing changes. Creating an organisation which defaults towards a bias to action will require a culture shift.
Set the pace and tone: As a manager or a leader you set the pace for your team. If you want people to take action, you yourself must take action. Know that every action won’t have a positive outcome. Embrace learning from failures and share these with the team. Focus on the end result.
Get to know your people: Understand what motivates each member of your team. Try to understand their internal reasons for feeling they can’t take action. Support them in changing their mindset. Understand how you as a manager impact their beliefs and ability to take action.
Cultivating a bias to action is one of the most powerful positive changes you can create in your life, and in an organisation. Investing in developing this muscle may not always be easy but it will certainly be worth it