No More Action

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal

When I first moved into a management position, I struggled. I felt everybody was bringing their problems to me now, and I had to solve them.

I was still a rookie as you can tell — I still used the term “problem” instead of “challenge.”

Those were the days.

Ping! A question.

Ping! Another.

I barely got to do any of my own work. However, I kept telling myself: managers are supposed to remove obstacles for their team, and I was at least doing that, right?

In a sense, I felt important because clearly people relied on me. However, I also realized it wasn’t sustainable. What would happen if I would go on a lunch break, got sick, or worse… needed a vacation? Would the world grind to a halt?

I had a personal coach at the time. She advised me to try something odd:

When people ask you something: don’t respond immediately. Wait a bit and see what happens.

In other words: intentionally delay your responses.

This was actually pretty doable. I worked remotely at the time, so all such requests came in asynchronously via chat. I could simply not respond for some time.

This is what happened:

“Hey Zef, where do I find this and that information?”

No action from my side. No response.

Ten minutes later: “Never mind. Found it!”

As I applied this more consistently, the number of requests being sent my way dropped significantly. The reason was obvious. Before, I was a useful resource for looking up information, or a quick way to get something done. However, with the added “latency,” it became much more efficient to rely on themselves to resolve problems.

For me, this was a clear win. But more importantly, it was a big boon for my team as they learned to rely more on themselves than me. While trying to be helpful, supportive and “remove blockers” I had become a bottleneck myself.

Maybe there is something to the idea of deliberately not taking action that is worth exploring. At some level there is something strangely attractive to this concept, isn’t there?


“The subtle art of not doing sh*t

That would make for a great book title as well.

Many companies I’ve worked for share a “leadership behavior” of “bias for action.”

Action bias is the tendency to given the choice of acting versus not acting, to pick the former: to act.

I understand where it comes from. I appreciate the sentiment.

“We are getting things done around here!”

“Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness!”

“We don’t just sit around and wait for others to solve our problems, we take ownership!”

Cool stuff.

But there can be equal value in sometimes, perhaps frequently, doing the opposite.

In complex systems, the results of actions are often extremely hard to predict. We may have great intentions in acting, but that doesn’t mean they will have the desired result.

One of the things you will quickly learn when reading a bit about the history of macroeconomics is that there’s a massive discrepancy between the intention of economic measures and their actual effects. In fact, in a shockingly high number of situations it seems that, in retrospect, not intervening would have been a better strategy than introducing some new law, or introducing some new incentive. Complex systems like the economy tend to self-regulate to a large extent, and taking (interventionist) action often tends to make things worse rather than better. Usually in surprising ways.

While your company may not be as complex as the world economy, let’s not be simplistic about this. In “No More Rewards” we’ve seen we’ve been applying rewards for decades without really fully understanding their impact. Are you sure you know what’s going to happen when you implement that brilliant plan you’ve been scheming?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say.

In many ways, organizations are like living beings. Living beings tend to evolve by themselves, no intervention required. We talk about “self organizing teams” all the time. You know what is a great way to support teams on their journey to become self-organizing?

That’s right.

Not doing sh*t.

No more action.

How about this instead: a bias for inaction?

Somebody comes to you with a problem. You listen. You nod. And you say:

“I hear you. That is indeed a problem.”

And then. You do nothing.

What will likely happen, similar to my delayed response strategy, is that people will figure out you’re not the quick fixer you once were. A shame because that was rather convenient. Perhaps they should explore ways of addressing issues themselves?

Then, see if the problem keeps coming back to you. I generally apply a threshold of three times as a strong indicator that indeed some actual intervention is required. If the issue resurfaces less often than that, perhaps it wasn’t a real issue. Let’s consider it a prioritization mechanism.

Of course, we shouldn’t take this to the extreme. Our role is to manage the system, and there are definitely cases where that actually requires… you know, doing things.

We love to show that we care and want to help: “Of course! I’ll get on that right away!”

However, should that always be the default?

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