At the start of my first career in the Army, I remember being told “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” That direction describes a leadership behaviour I subsequently came to know as a bias for action.
Today’s business environment demands extraordinary leadership. The environment is dynamic, the future is uncertain for many and there is rarely consensus on the way ahead. Leaders unusually have sole responsibility for the outcomes they need to deliver. More commonly, they will be delivered by ecosystems of people and teams, so the competencies required to lead today’s organizations should focus on people-related skills and behaviours. Success depends on gaining the trust, confidence, and commitment of a network of people in an evolving and ever-changing environment.
To succeed in a dynamic environment, leaders need to develop a bias for action. This describes a default style of leadership based on the belief that action is better than inaction. As I rewrite and publish this article today, I note that today is the official day of remembrance in the United States for Martin Luther King. This quote seems appropriate:
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
In an uncertain and dynamic environment, you cannot know enough about the situation you are in to make a perfect plan. To decide what to do, you must learn, and to learn, you have to do something that changes the situation. Action must be purposeful and therefore requires the self-discipline to act in line with the organisation’s intent. If you are unsure what the organization’s intent is, your first action should be to find out!
Intuitively, this approach aligns with Dave Snowden’s useful Cynefin framework which was developed to help leaders understand their challenges and to make decisions in the context of the situation. Snowden, a leading expert on complex adaptive systems, implied different types of action as the best course in situations characterized by complexity and chaos.
• Complex – take action to find out (probe, sense, and respond)
• Chaotic – take action to affect the situation (act, sense and respond)
A bias for action creates momentum. It avoids inactivity leading to lost learning opportunities. It provides positive energy and a focus to overcome indecision (‘paralysis by analysis’) or the urge to wait for further information in the forlorn hope clarity will emerge.
Decisive action will also impact the prevailing situation. It will often require changes to existing practice – doing something different – to change a complex or chaotic paradigm and regain some initiative.
A bias for action recognizes that in a complex but rapidly changing world, speed is a competitive advantage. In military circles, this isn’t a new idea. Col John Boyd’s OODA loop (Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act) was derived as a fighter pilot in the Korean War and helped us to understand the need to make critical decisions faster than your opponent, whilst considering the prevailing situation (what’s happening) and, of course, factoring in your unconscious bias and asking ‘what else could it mean’, so you keep options open and make decisions without regret. In today’s business language, this might be referred to as agile thinking. The OODA loop has orientation (situational awareness) at its centre, and is continually active and iterative. We act, we assess effects, we challenge what we know and believe, we make a further decision and act again.
A bias for action complements rather than replaces other leadership competencies. The decision when and how to act will become even more important in the age of intelligent machines capable of analyzing vast data sets, and multiple scenarios and proposing different courses of action. Future enterprise leaders will bring humanity to decision-making and energize organizations by acting decisively to take advantage of opportunities and defend against critical threats. They will need a bias for action.