Learn the art of avoiding action for the sake of action

Leaders often venerate freneticism. Perhaps this is because our society praises action and sees “getting things done” as the mark of strong leadership.

We are continuously reminded that in order to accomplish great things we need to take action quickly, decisively. And action generates more action: it’s a sin in our organizational culture to leave a meeting without action items, no? Moreover, for some of us, our congenital dislike of meetings is partially due to the fact that -- in these essentially social events (after all, a meeting by its nature calls together humans) -- we succumb to the nagging feeling that our time is being wasted if little “actionable” movement is occurring. But is this so?

We intuitively realize that the domain of action (that is, implementation) is different from the domain of deciding which action to take (decision-making). This explains the sophisticated mechanisms that we use to prevent mistakes or miscalculations when our brilliant ideas hit the road: risk mitigation, planning matrices or predictive analytics. We might even be fully aware of the futility of our efforts to mitigate risks that result from actually taking action. Perhaps we’re “in the know” enough to recognize that many consider the discipline of strategic planning to have long gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Why do we continue to perform what we call “due diligence” in order to prevent what is hard to predict, understand or just plan? How diligent is that? We continue to ignore Mike Tyson when he says, “Everyone has a plan until they got punched in the face.”

Yes, we know that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (aka VUCA) world. But most of us continue to admire quick, decisive action and the stable, certain, simple and well-defined conditions that make us feel comfortable.

Don’t misunderstand me: this is not a case against fast decisions per se, as many decisions in our work day are purely technical and need to be made quickly. We solve those problems every day and apply rigorous expertise to deal with them; we do great work that way and make progress for our organizations.

I’m discussing another domain of problems here, one of human relations where ambiguity and uncertainty are the rule rather than the exception -- a domain of innovation when we conquer the future and do what has never been done. I’m talking about leadership and change.

In a world of black swans and white flies -- events and occurrences hard to predict or just to imagine -- can you say how many decisions, even simple ones in today’s organizational life, are taken without ceding to the pressure of applying a quick fix that satisfies our need for resolution?

The hard truth is that, in a VUCA world, our action-orientation may be just the thing that is responsible for all disasters, big and small. This is because the art of taking action is a discipline not really understood. The core idea here is that when leadership matters, when bigger issues are at stake, real action is about figuring it out in action -- not about planning and then doing it.

What does the alternative look like? Here are some ideas:

Sometimes it’s good to plan, but some other times action is the best way to figure the best action out. If you use actions as experiments (not solutions) you move into “doing” more easily and learn to correct course and refine based on evidence. Try approaching action as a test of your understanding and a step towards defining solutions iteratively. And start now. As the old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Collective overthinking ensures quality solutions. When we succumb to our terror of analysis paralysis, we forget that the only way we know how to successfully deal with uncertainty is to share information and multiple interpretations. This is true as we navigate a new team, a new startup, try to build consensus or deal with an unprecedented event. Investing time isn’t about delaying action -- it’s about building connections to leverage diversity, knowledge and experience as a premise for success. This investment in connecting the system cohesively is the right way to achieve the variety and range of solutions needed to deal with complexity.

Get into action for the right reasons. We often get into action to satisfy our need for closure, not because we have the right action to pursue. Especially in groups, we are often so allergic to ambiguity that any course of action –- no matter which one -- will do for the sake of getting rid of our feeling of uncertainty. Action for the sake of action rarely accomplishes anything of value except for the decision-maker. When you feel that pressure in your meetings, be bold. Ask directly, “Are we choosing this course of action because we can’t deal with the ambiguity and need closure, or because we think it’s best?”

Cultivate nonthinking by slowing down to go faster. Thinking is useful in most occasions, but there are some when thinking interferes with the work. You have to leave cognition behind and let the unconscious come forward. Start by scheduling a free hour once very week with no meetings, phone calls, email, Twitter, mobile alerts or podcasts. Spend the hour viewing beautiful art, listening to music, taking a walk, meditating or simply daydreaming. Pay attention to the effect that hour has on your effectiveness afterwards. Are you thinking more clearly, working more deliberately, feeling more energized?

The next time you feel the urge to lead, remember the nature of our VUCA environment. Stay open to the possibility that just standing there is the best thing you can do to be of service to your team, your organization and to the world.

 

Adriano Pianesi is a leadership practitioner, faculty member of the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University, where he also teaches for the Office of Executive Education. Through ParticipAction Consulting, his consulting practice, he helps diverse groups of people come together to solve tough problems, and helps leaders work for change by harnessing the powers of conflict, diversity and complexity. He is a faculty member of the World Bank "Team Leadership Program" and of the State Department "Experiential Learning Program". He is the author of the e‐book “Teachable Moments of Leadership” where he describes a state‐of‐the‐art experiential leadership learning methodology that gets real results. Visit his website.

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