bias toward action

No One Thinks They Lack a Bias Toward Action

People often talk about the value of a bias toward action. I know I did, but I believe I was mistaken. Why? No one thinks they lack a bias toward action. After all, busyness and productivity are hard to tell apart. For example, I remember a younger me who didn’t have GPS. When I was lost, I would never stop and ask for direction. So while I was putting miles on the car, I really wasn’t going anywhere.

My point is I think it’s time we reframe our notion of action. Let’s call it a bias toward progress instead. It’s forward movement we’re after, right? Or maybe it’s conscious or intentional movement since sometimes going backward or sideways teaches us something important. So how does a bias toward action differ from a bias toward progress? Let’s talk about that today.

My lovely bride loves to craft. She’ll see something on Pinterest or Instagram and immediately go to the store, buy some supplies, and go to work. She’s created some beautiful things over the years. However, she sometimes gets discouraged mid-project. When this happens, she’ll often find another project, buy more supplies, and start another project. It’s not uncommon for her to have three to five projects going at once, which gets a bit overwhelming. And messy.

My wife is action-based, and some might argue that this is a bias toward progress as well. After all, look at all the progress she can make on any of these fronts when she finds inspiration. I’m not so sure though.

Which is a better measure of progress? The amount of things we start or the amount of things we finish?

Whenever I’ve asked teams this question, they inevitably say the amount of things we finish, which can be in contradiction to how much work they have in progress. It’s easy to appreciate why since it’s usually easier to start something new than finish something old.

We also see a lack of progress occur with decision making. We want more data. Our options are innumerable. Our stakeholders are insistent and opinionated. Or maybe we have a conflict of values regardless of what decision we make. As one leader recently said to me:

We have to choose between airplane food and hospital food.

I’ve seen some decision makers struggle to maintain a bias toward progress in these situations. They may hope consensus will naturally emerge with enough time. Or maybe they wish to avoid conflict so they don’t press for a decision or offer their stance candidly. In these circumstances, I like to remind leaders that it’s the hard things that we should do more of, not less. This is doubly true when it comes to navigating conflict.

Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.

Mahatma Gandhi

But how do we help people shift away from a bias toward action to a bias toward progress? I’ll offer several tactics:

  • Break decisions apart. Take that big decision and break it into pieces. Each of these smaller decisions should take one to three days to resolve. If delays happen, learn why and potentially reinforce a bias for progress. Finally, ensure it’s our people breaking these decisions apart, not us.
  • Be brief. Verbosity obfuscates clarity. Fold in the details and nuance through conversation. Never use ten words when five will do.
  • Adjust language to affect mindset. At stand up, for example, I prefer the question of “What do I intend to get done today?” over “What will I do today?” One implies progress. The other implies action.
  • Eliminate the noise. Just as in chess, not every move should be considered. Eliminate all the choices that are too far removed from the realities of the situation. However, use this tactic judiciously. Sometimes we eliminate novel ideas if we’re not careful.

That’s all for today, folks. Until next time.

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2 thoughts on “No One Thinks They Lack a Bias Toward Action”

  1. When I read this post, one thing kept ringing in my mind, “If you are on the wrong direction, the harder you work, the further you will be away from your goal.” To me, one key difference between “bias toward action” and “bias toward progress” is somehow reflected nicely in this sentence. We need wisdom (or a map) to know if we are on the right direction or not. But that’s a different topic. Overall, It’s a great read, thank you, Tanner!

    1. Funny. That brings to mind advice I’ve offered a few times before:

      “You can go fast in the wrong direction or slow in the right direction. You pick.”

      Thanks for stopping by, Zhimin.

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