Purposeful action- how to counter “action bias”

At Nucleus Insights, we work with organisations on transformation programs. This entails, among other things, working with leadership teams to build strategies for their desired vision. While working on strategies, one thing we notice consistently across all types of teams, is the tendency to jump to tactics and actions. Only a few teams take the time to sit back, reflect and come up with clear purposeful strategies.

Recall the number of times programs are launched with fan fare, but fizzle out in a few weeks? I can recall a few. There was the so called employee engagement program, where the senior leadership team in my previous company wanted to have a town hall style meeting in every office, the last Friday of every month. This, the leadership felt would help them “connect” with the people. I can’t remember this sustaining beyond the third month. There was no one from the leadership available after a while. So all the work that had been done to set up and get this rolling in every office was wasted. Another one is on rewards and recognition (seen in every organisation I have worked in or am working with!). All starts off with the good intention of recognizing people who make significant contribution, but soon there are so many awards that they mean nothing. It becomes a round robin with managers ensuring no one in the team is left out or upset. Award ceremonies turn into a chore, the list of winners becomes an excel spreadsheet, that no one other than the winners look at when circulated! So all this action towards nothing meaningful!

Whether it is at senior levels where people run entire business units or at mid to junior managerial levels, there is a tendency to jump to action. The psychologists call this phenomenon “action bias”. The tendency to be seen doing something, rather than taking time to reflect and act, is very strong in humans. Apparently this is an evolutionary instinct from our hunter-gatherer days. Humans had to act quickly while on a hunting mission. There was no time to assess if the quick movement in the woods was a deer or a lion. One had to jump and act. Staying put, thinking through the next steps and developing the best action plan was not necessarily rewarded in that environment. When you sit back and plan, you might well get eaten up! Unfortunately, the present environment both at home and at work, reinforces this tendency. Corporates reward action. People seen doing something, gain more visibility and thus often get rewarded in some form. The one who sits back, reflects and comes up with the best plan isn’t necessarily the one who is recognized. She/he is often overshadowed by the quick to respond person.

Action is important. It gives energy and keeps things moving. However not-thought-through random actions can have many unintended consequences. They could affect the efficiency of the organization. They could lower the morale of employees leading to cynicism and lack of trust in the leadership. Organisations want to exist for the long term. Their actions are intended to grow and nurture employees, customers, vendors, and other stakeholders for the long term. However the tendency to jump to quick fire action does not support the long term intent.. Is it possible to counter this bias for quick action? Is it possible to arrive at effective set of strategies that lead to meaningful action? Is it possible to create a culture of thinking holistically, before shooting off in one direction?

In our experience, we have seen it is possible. There is a very simple, yet very profound technique which can begin to change the tendency of action bias. It involves the following two steps.

  1. “Why do we want to do what we want to do?”

The first one is taking a look at the overall objective: the deeper purpose or the intent. This is asking the question “why”. The question of deeper purpose leads us to look at the long term impact or the change we want to see – what really matters for the organization. The answer to a purpose question is not an action, but the articulation of a deeper philosophy and or the aspiration.

  1. “What do we want out of this?”

The second one is clearly defining the desired outcomes: the products we want from the exercise. This is answering the question “what ”. The questions about what do we want to see as a visible outcome will lead one to clearly state the products. These can be both experiential and tangible.

Only after completing these two simple steps we suggest the required actions –the “how” – be thought through based on the bigger purpose and the desired outcomes. With the purpose and outcomes clear, the task of then devising the “how” or the actions becomes simpler and more meaningful.

Lets take the example of employee engagement, which was referred to in one of the earlier paragraphs. Here, the “why” or the purpose could be for people to feel a greater sense of ownership in the organisation and hence do their work with complete accountability.

The desired outcomes or the “what” can be:

  • every employee having a clear understanding of the organisation’s business and how his/her role impacts the business,
  • Increased participation in the internal referral program,
  • Decreased follow-up meetings and emails, and
  • 3 stories every month in the company intranet on how individuals and teams went above and beyond their routine job to make a difference.

When we have the above thought through, the purpose and outcomes guide the focus of town hall meetings and their agenda. It also might become apparent that town hall meetings with dependency on a small leadership team may not be the only way to achieve the objective. There could be many other tactics and actions involved in a broader strategy.

When we articulate the purpose and the outcomes every time we are required to act in some way, we create the larger story and give meaning to our actions. When we have a good story as to why we do what we do and what we want, we are able to enlist others at the intent level and engage them in more purposeful action.

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