Action over In Action

May 14th, 2015 by The Milestone Planner

Although Milestone Planner is a planning tool, its focus is on action – keeping your eye on what needs to get done to reach the milestones that lead on to your ultimate goal. In business, inaction is often the greatest risk: ignoring changes in the situation or the desired outcome means that opportunities are lost. In business, inaction doesn’t result in staying still, it results in going backwards, as competitors and customers move on.

So why do people do nothing? Well, the are obviously many reasons, but the most common root cause is false assumptions. People are often paralysed by the perceived risk of taking action, or by choice paralysis, which Barry Schwartz talks about in his TED talk.

But even when we focus down on a more limited set of choices, there is still often a false assumption that the risk of action is greater than the risk of doing nothing, because we often fail to assess and understand the risks of doing nothing. Simon Blair, via Twitter, reminded us of another false assumption that leads to inaction, or even sometimes to anti-action (going in completely the wrong direction!): The Abilene paradox. Coined by Jerry B. Harvey  The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement (1974), is when a group reaches a false consensus because they make assumptions about what the other team members want to do, or are doing. It is one of the reasons that we believe strongly in “making work visible” so that team members know what other team members are working on, and actively engage. Simon recounts a recent experience in a hospital waiting room that shows how groups tend towards inaction, even when no-one is happy with the situation:

The television was on in the waiting room, playing a children’s show. I should tell you at this point that every single person in the room was an adult. There were around 10 or 15 of us.
Nobody changed the channel. Nobody.
Think about that for a moment. A group of about a dozen adults was watching children’s programming instead of changing the channel. What does it mean?
  • Did every adult in the room actually want to watch children’s shows?
  • Was each person afraid to change the channel in case everybody else wanted to watch the children’s shows?
  • Were people reluctant to change the channel for fear of having their choice of program criticized?
  • Was it because we’re Canadian, and nobody wanted to risk offending someone else by changing from the fascinating plot aimed at 5-year-olds?

Everyone appeared comfortable with the status quo, but of course they weren’t, as Simon goes on:

Eventually, the show changed to Caillou (a role model on par with Dennis the Menace). At this point, one woman did something wonderful. She stood up, said “I can’t take this any more,” and asked if anyone minded if she changed the channel. Even better, she found two options and polled the room to see which was a better fit. The point is, she acted instead of enduring the status quo.

You can read Simon’s full post here. Action beats inaction, almost every time, even if the action is just investigating what the alternatives are to the status quo!

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