In their best-selling book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. described eight themes or behaviors practiced by successful or excellent companies. At the top of the list was “a bias for action.” The authors saw the importance of driving to rapid yet well-informed decisions that allowed the business to move forward without becoming stalled in bureaucracy or endless talk. Thirty-three years later, this bias for action is as relevant as ever. It is relevant not only for businesses, but also for organizations of all types. Frankly, it is even relevant for individuals.
All too often, though, organizations demonstrate a debilitating penchant for inaction. As a result, it takes longer to identify and solve problems, makes responding to the marketplace slow, and generally renders any form of improvement close to impossible. This inclination toward non-action typically takes one of two forms. The first is the practice of endless talk. The second is the diaphanous decision.
I imagine that nearly everyone reading this has experienced a situation where an organization you were involved in was facing a challenge but progress toward a solution had stalled. You attended meeting after meeting with lots of talk and no decision. Perhaps the meetings were just far enough apart that everyone felt they had to begin over again. Perhaps there were new participants and for whatever reason they had to be caught up on the topic by rehashing it all from the beginning. And all too often, the same people dominated the meetings time after time. Moreover, phrases such as “We’ve tried that!” and “That doesn’t work” abounded. Sooner or later, the people in the room who are ready and willing to act drift out of the picture only to be replaced by new folks who will need to be “brought up to speed.”
Of course, a facilitated session would end the talk once and for all, but recognizing the need for one requires capable and aware leadership. On the other hand, if leadership is sucking up all of the available air in the room at meetings, then the self-awareness needed to make a change is not in evidence. Such organizations are destined to wallow on until they either fold or disaster causes a true shakeup.
The cult of the diaphanous decision is even more deadly because it is generally a cultural part of the organization in question. Consider a group of people who come together and eventually make a decision. The participants can even document the decision, but anyone who did not participate in the meeting is allowed to reopen the debate and delay any action that might be a consequence of the decision. I have even seen situations where one of the participants in the original decision has challenged the decision in a subsequent meeting. Not even facilitation can help in this situation, because an agreement by the participants to abide by the decision has no validity. Such organizations can eventually move forward, but progress is glacial and the cost is high.
In both cases, there is an almost pathological resistance to action. There are many reasons for this including control, incompetence, and fear. Fear may be the biggest factor and can derive from the fear of change, fear of the unknown, or fear of failure. In any case, the perceived need to talk and analyze and reanalyze leads to a form of institutional paralysis. Such paralysis can rarely be overcome except by a wholesale change in management, a cataclysmic event, or both.
The bias for action does not ignore any of these factors. Action requires forethought, a measure of control, and competence. The reality is that no one can be 100% assured of any outcome no matter how much planning goes into the action. But with that knowledge, one can be prepared to adapt in process when the need arises.
I have found that preparing deliberately but then taking action quickly can help to facilitate success. The secret is not to try boiling the ocean in the early stages. Rather, beginning with small successes or failures can help to uncover facets of a problem or situation that months of talk and analysis might never have uncovered. It is one of the reasons that Agile works so well as a software development approach.
I have also found prolonged talk or preparation to be creatively stifling, while action frees the mind to creative possibilities. I often apply this when learning a new skill. After reading just enough to know how to get started, I will jump in with both feet and try it myself. I will experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. When I encounter things that do not work, I will go seek out the answer from a book, an online article, or an expert. Action gives me more and better questions to ask. Experimentation leads me to possibilities that were not “addressed in the book.” And doing leads me closer to a solution more rapidly whether I am leading a team or pursuing an independent project.
As for those situations where the endless cycle of talking or rethinking of decisions has ground progress to a halt, I have little in the way of advice to offer. If you are in a position to bring change to the organizational culture, then by all means do not waste another day. If not, the best you can do is ask the question, “What will it take to agree to action by the end of this meeting?” You can sweeten the pot by offering to lead the way if the team is agreeable, but that also means taking responsibility if events do not turn out well.
Peters and Waterman had it right back in 1982. And as I mentioned above, there is a cost in time and dollars when organizations cannot move from talk to action. The meetings themselves cost money, while the issues and challenges that remain unaddressed have a cost of their own. When allowed to continue unresolved, that cost can mount quickly. Looking at it in this way, I realize that I acted too quickly in naming this article. Perhaps I should have entitled it “Talk is Pricey?”
How do you move from talk to action in your organization? How would you break the cycle of unproductive talk?