action bias: ailment or prescription?

Lately, and by lately, I mean over the past year or so, my recommendations to clients have often been more urgent than they would have liked.  Also, in my long-term projects, interactions with large corporations, including bureaucratic government agencies, have obliged me to hurry others to reach foregone conclusions, to complete the logic of obvious decisions, and, once the direction is clear, to act swiftly.

In short, I’m often a pain in the ass.  So are all NetGainers, in attitude, if not comportment.  I know because we talk privately about how to accelerate change in our clients or accomplish stated goals more expeditiously through our clients’ external relationships.

I’m more than usually conscious of this because in conversation, correspondence, and public commentary I’ve been hearing the threadbare notion of 'action bias' as an implied criticism of those who urge change.  No one likes to be hurried, but this is a politely patronizing way of claiming power to set the pace.

The term, action bias, is funny to me when it is used as intellectual cover for emotional resistance.  In part, it’s funny because it’s taken 35 years for it to morph from a virtue to a vice in the minds of procrastinators.

The term was popularized by the best-selling, former McKinseyite, Tom Peters, in his 1982 book, In Search of Excellence.  He listed it first among the requisite attitudes and behaviours of agile, entrepreneurial, organizations.  Action bias was a trait he was recommending, not a habit to be avoided.

Atari 2600

Atari console circa 1980-1982

Think back to 1982, if you were born by then, and you’ll recall that there were big changes in the making.  Canada had just patriated its constitution and AIDS had just struck its first victims.  Ring a bell?  We were plunged into a deep recession, with double digit interest and unemployment rates.  More broadly, personal computers (PC’s) were starting to appear in people’s home, though most people didn’t know what to do with them.  Atari introduced a computer game console with less RAM than a Fitbit, but, looking back, it was the start of a new industry.

In the US, the ground rules were rapidly changing, creating new opportunities and perils for slow footed corporate giants.  The Reagan Revolution was beginning the process of deregulating financial services, Bernie Madoff started hedging his portfolio with derivatives, and not coincidentally, the stock market surged as unemployment deepened.   AT&T was being broken up into 22 smaller telcos, the US backed an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the Mexican economy was collapsing.

Peters advocated 'action bias' because the ground rules of business were changing, and because that change was accelerating.  He wasn’t wrong.

There is a pretty straight line between the war in Lebanon and the radicalization of Bin Laden, by his own account, resulting in declaration of hatred toward America that culminated in the 9/11 terrorism attacks and a crippling war in the Persian Gulf.  The proliferation of home computers and the breakup of AT&T were necessary preconditions for commercialization of the world wide web, the entrance of dozens of new competitors in home entertainment and cell phone markets, and their eventual integration on a variety of smart phone and tablet platforms.  The same goes for the deregulation of financial services and the diverging fortunes of the investor class from wage earners, which sharpened the disparities leading eventually to subprime mortgages, the global economic crisis, the Occupy Movement, a theoretical kneecapping of economics as a social science, and a political cleavage in Western countries between haves and have not's.  Even that ugly early 80’s recession in Canada, the US, and Mexico made NAFTA more palatable later in Reagan’s rule and dramatically strengthened the hand of multinational corporations in their dealings with governments in the brokering of trade agreements.

Every disruption, every overturned assumption, every upheaval that occurred in the time Peters was working on In Search of Excellence, opened a window in time during which competitive realignments could occur.  As change accelerated, those windows got smaller, conferring advantage on those who recognized the openings first and mobilized fastest to pass through them.  Hence, he put a premium on agility and recognized the virtue of an action bias.

No one would argue that the pace of change has slowed since 1982.  Technology is the most visible area of innovation and global corporate realignment, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Politics has become a real-time game because information gathering and distribution has become a real-time preoccupation of news and entertainment companies.  Investigation, advocacy, and protest has accelerated globally because of the internet, for good or ill, enabling public interest groups to influence national agendas, and anti-government groups, such as ISIS, to mobilize international militancies, commanding a different geopolitical agenda.

Which raises the question behind my ruminations about how the accelerating pace of change over the past 35 years could possibly be ignored by those who have reversed the meaning of 'action bias' in the present day (see this post, for an example of ignoring the pace of change in Toronto).  If Peters was right in his observations in 1982, and those trends have become stronger over time, how has action bias, as a prescribed organizational response, acquired a negative value for some people?

Context is everything.  First, I would look at who now uses the term 'action bias' in a pejorative sense (and, there are obvious exceptions, like the HBR post which criticizes counterproductive busyness as a substitute for purposeful action).  Peters was writing about entrepreneurship primarily.  Although it is obvious that governmental and voluntary organizations were subject to the same pressures, not everyone took the lessons learned so painfully by large corporations since then.  Governments have come and gone over at least nine election cycles since 1982, but the corporations of government, where planning, policy, administration, and enforcement occur, have remained mostly intact in terms of authority and resources.  The same is true of many voluntary organizations, which are partially shielded from the direct impact of the changes around them.  Some may have shrunk and some may have grown, but relatively few charities have expired, and indeed the number continues to grow.

Unsurprisingly then, it is from government officials and the executives or managers of voluntary sector organizations that I hear the explicit or implied call to inaction.  In the private sector, the call to inaction is limited largely to advocates for the status quo, resisting various forms of regulation or deregulation that impinge on their clients’ profitability.  However, when the sectors meet, it is the business enterprise that grates at the pace of government decisions and action, and it is the government that guards against action bias when pressure mounts for change.

Examples abound in our practice.  Specific plans and general policies can languish between departments, bureaucratic incentives for delay, until good measure can become harmful or irrelevant.  A concrete example, literally, is the occasional completion and tenanting of buildings for which permits have yet to be issued.  Planners and inspectors can’t keep up and developers can’t wait.  Both sides recognize the problem and politely avoid open conflict about it except in the most egregious cases, but the problem is real nevertheless.  Elsewhere, I’ve identified this as a reason for the suboptimal outcomes of public private partnerships.

It’s a bit more complicated in the voluntary sector.  Charitable or non-profit organizations certainly feel the effects of economic, political, technological or social change, but it’s rarely fatal and is often mitigated by anachronistic philanthropy or by resilient government funding arrangements.  They can fall ahead or behind the pace of their public and private sector partners, though they tend to change more slowly than their private sector stakeholders and more quickly than their public-sector supporters.   True to Peters’ prescription, the most agile become agents of change and exemplars to the rest; the least willing to change slide eventually into irrelevance.

As consultants, we often bridge the sectors on behalf our clients.  It doesn’t matter which sector the client inhabits, there will always be an element of our assignment that depends on the participation of actors in a parallel universe.  Since we can’t slow the world down, nor would we counsel clients to act in oblivion to the change round them, this always means that we’re trying to hurry someone to match the pace of someone else.

Perhaps this is why the accusation of action bias, explicitly or in other words, is inevitable.  We are like the clutch plate in a manual transition, trying to reduce friction so our clients can shift up and down through the gear range, sometimes helping an inexperienced driver to discover a gear they didn’t know they had.

To extend the metaphor further, we often serve clients who don’t like to look at their dashboard, and when they do, only take note of the readings they like.  And, like all clutch plates, driven hard and sometimes carelessly, we burn out.

Maybe that’s why the notion of action bias seems so grating to me now.  Luckily, NetGain will take a break over the holidays.  With luck, that will be long enough for a tune up and fluid replacement.

Can’t wait to start.  A rebalance of work and leisure, stress and sleep, and the replacement of coffee with wine, ought to do the trick.

No time like the present.  Salut!

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