how to bias to action

Without getting to hooked up on how you specifically call it, most organisations I’ve worked for had some notion of the idea of “bias to action”. Whether it was “get shit done”, “JFDI” (for just f**** do it) or “done is better than perfect”, the idea is pretty much the same – you want to give the action contributing to the result itself precedence over activities that are more on the wasteful side of things. So far, so good. It’s a notion that’s not only very easy to agree with. It’s also something that’s incredibly hard to do, since you really don’t want anyone to just start doing random things.

Taking a step back, I’d guess that all that bias to action talk has its roots in a deep antipathy to the way big corporations tend to work internally. Days filled with endless, and pointless, meetings. Poor decisions made by big committees. Endless resources thrown on problems that yield only subpar results. The alternative offered is that of a startup, where decisions are made fast, feedback loops are tight and only results matter – neither rank, politics or any other element that makes working in a modern corporate environment so incredibly “fun” exist in that utopia.

So you take the secret sauce of a start up – a relentless bias to action – and share with your team to apply this principle from now on. But first, you need to clarify a few things. The first is: what actions should the team be biased to? Are the goals abundantly clear? Also, how are you ensuring that “bias to action” isn’t used as an excuse to stop collaboration in the team (for example, to improve decision making)? Who’s taking the bullet if that “bias to action” leads to problems that could’ve been avoided if more communication and less action had happened?

You need answers for all of those questions. Ideally, a bias to action should elevate your teams culture, not be used as an excuse to stop working as one - for example. Guardrails to the rescue.

The most relevant question though remains: For all of it, “bias to action”, “get shit done”, “just do it” – the big question is: what? Get what done? And here’s where I probably disagree with the whole notion of those bold statements being preached to teams. Teams, and more generally groups of people, are incredibly good at understanding what kind of behaviour is rewarded. This is of course purely anecdotal, but it’s been my repeated experience that there’s a far more effective way to actually encourage teams to take action: Reward the result. By rewarding I do not mean handing out chocolate bars and pay raises - probably occasionally that is the right thing to do, I do mean it in a more regular fashion: Speak about actions that contribute to results. Make it clear that those matter, more than anything else. If you’re building a piece of software, there’s a million actions that contribute directly to that piece of software – and healthy teams will self select those that are providing the most direct path to getting something out of the door – if there’s a clear understanding that getting something out of the door is the most important thing – and will be recognised and rewarded as such.

This is fundamentally different from trying to get a team to simply “start doing things”. This comes not only with the complexity that it needs to be an ongoing drive and push – not really fun for anyone involved. It also requires guardrails in which this rather onfocused “bias to action” needs to happen. All of that needs more energy, investment and attention than clearly, repeatedly and honestly sharing the goals and expectations – and adjusting the reward structure accordingly.

There’s a big caveat here. Teams in bigger corporations might operate in modes that are effectively not too far away from those of the praised startups – but it might actually prevent, not encourage the success of individual team members, since the reward structure of the wider company, and the reward structure of the inner team might be so different that they’re effectively incompatible. If you are a leader and you’re faced with such a situation, it’s a tight rope walk to find the right balance between keeping your team on track, being authentic in how you set expectations and goals – while ensuring that the folks you’re working with are getting a shot at thriving in the wider organisation. It’s the two hats you’re wearing. But don’t worry, they look good on you.