Winter Trees of Goryokaku Fort.

Bias for action

We preach about the effectiveness of having a bias for action, and to a large extent, it is an excellent strategy in a world which rewards action over inaction. The paralysis of analysis and the fear of decision often leads to an opportunity cost.

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking.

This is the 9th principle at Amazon, and it has undisputedly helped many to "make things happen" by overcoming their mental inertia of doing. But how we choose to apply this mental model is extremely important because there are many other compounding forces at play that will quickly bring progress to a grinding halt, or worse, constant progress but no outcomes.

To first address the context of my thoughts, I am not talking about the simple motivational decisions we make in life like going to the gym, getting started with a blog post or working on that pet project you have always wanted to do. Here, I refer to the business and product decisions that have far-reaching implications downstream on the day to day work we do.

There are a few facets to the issue; the first one here is calculated risk-taking. More often then not, the bias for action is misinterpreted as a bias for speed. This misapplication puts us in a very now-centric solution space, regularly optimizing short term results over long term interests.

I won't go into much detail on how we define calculated risk-taking, but I would recommend a more definitive approach to think about reversibility. How reversible is this decision? Not from a theoretical standpoint, but in a practical sense. And to do that we consider the following:

Cost of reversion
Can we truly afford to revert?

It's common sense that when the cost of reversion is high, we will choose not to act on our choices. But often, the tricky decisions are the one that results in a seemingly small cost, almost trivial to be concerned about in general. But just because it's reversible does not make it free. And while the cost is cheap on its own, many small changes made at the same time can result in confusion on the ground and misalignment amongst team members.

Total risk exposure
How many calculated risks are we undertaking right now?

Just like stocks we invest in, we need to take stock on the bets we take and make sure that our portfolio reflects our appetite for risk. While it may pay off when everything works as intended, a wrench in the works can send things crumbling down just like a stock market crashing on an equity-focused portfolio.

Compounding risk
Are we taking risks on top of risks?

When we stack up fast-moving decisions, one atop of each other, it can create complex dependencies that gradually leads to a few potential problems:

  1. It can make a reversible risk irreversible (practically).
  2. It can make a previously independently operating risk less malleable and less experimental by nature.
  3. It creates a need for knowledge transfer of dependencies to allow stakeholders to manage all related risks as a whole.

Opportunity cost
Was there something better we could have done?

Every choice of an opportunity incurs an opportunity cost, which means, by action or inaction, we indirectly incur the cost of not pursuing an alternative possibility. And if we chose to do both (like the greedy multi-taskers we are), we suffer a higher and more expensive cost of contextual switching. It's like trying to study Math and Chinese at the same time, with the T.V. turned on.

It doesn't matter how well we execute every stride if we run in the wrong direction.

It is not enough to get things done effectively; we need to make decisions with more clarity on risk and cost. Bias for action is not an excuse for poor planning, and getting things done is as important as making sure if it's supposed to get done in the first place.

In the next post, I will discuss how this links to the Innovators Dilemma and why it's essential to consider the future even when everything is burning.

P.S. It's my first post so help me out by giving me feedback on the writing style, content or anything really 🙏