You step into an elevator and push the door-close button. Nothing happens. You push it again and wait a second. Then give it one more push before it starts the process of sliding the doors shut. It must have been that third push that did it.
Except it didn’t. Those buttons don’t work.
Following the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, elevator doors were required to remain open long enough for anyone using crutches, a cane, or a wheelchair. So subsequent elevator refurbishments disabled this function. And newer elevators are manufactured without it.
Without the function. But with the button.
Possibly because the door-open button would get lonely on its own. But more likely, because we have an inherent need to take action, even if it never actually has an impact.
People feel better after pushing the door-close button. It offers an illusion of control. And the door will eventually close. So our button-pushing efforts will be reinforced and we’ll feel better having exerted our influence over the situation.
Which, if you just enjoy pushing buttons, probably isn’t too big of a deal. But if you’re trying to be more effective, it is.
Action Bias: Our Need to Do Something, Even if It’s Not Helpful
“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization,” said the Roman satirist Petronius Arbiter, nearly 2000 years ago.
It’s easy to think that the obsession most companies have with reorganizing was borne of our instant gratification culture. Yet, as Petronius shows, it’s been a problem for at least two millennia.
And yet, for all of fanfare given to reorganizations, very rarely do they impact actual results – a lesson the Buffalo Bills never seem to learn as they replace their entire coaching staff every three years.
Which is understandable. Well, not with the Bills, there’s really no excuse there.
But for the rest of us, it’s easy to see how people fall victim to this action bias.
You’re faced with a problem. There’s no obvious solution. So you can choose to (a) do something, or (b) do nothing.
Which is easier to tell people? Which is easier to tell yourself?
Movement is perceived as progress. It validates our self-image as someone who takes control and makes things happen. And it distracts people from thinking about the magnitude of the challenge in front of them.
But most importantly, it gives us a feeling of control. Even if it’s just a perception. And we always feel better doing something than nothing.
But movement without direction is rarely progress. And actions that don’t drive us closer to success are merely distractions.
We can see this same behavior in loan repayments. Imagine having several loans of varying sizes and interest rates. Logically speaking, you should pay off the loan with the highest interest rate first.
But researchers found that people often tend to pay off their small, low-interest loans first to reduce the quantity of loans outstanding – even though this will cause them to pay more interest overall.
Our need for action – our desire to keep moving and generating some measure of progress – is a double-edged sword. In many ways this is a positive – the world tends to reward those that take initiative in the face of crisis. But like any strength, too much of a good thing becomes a liability.
The key is in recognizing this difference.
Know Your Problem
“Don’t just do something…stand there,” is the common advice Charlie Munger offers to investors on not overreacting to market fluctuations. But as Michael Bar-Eli and his colleagues at Ben-Gurion University demonstrated, this same advice could equally apply to soccer goalies.
They analyzed penalty kicks at the professional level and found that goalies jump to the left 49.3% of the time, jump to the right 44.4% of the time, and stay in the center 6.3% of the time.
The kicks, however, go to the left, right, or center 32.2%, 28.7%, and 39.2% of the time, respectively. Thus, the study concluded that if the goalies just stayed in the center, they would have saved 33.3% of the kicks, while diving left or right would drop this percentage to 14.2% or 12.6%, respectively.
When the researchers asked goalies about their preferred strategy for penalty kicks, the majority said they choose to dive, even though that cut their chance of making a save in half. When asked why, most responded that they’d regret letting up a goal more while standing in the center more than if they dived.
They wanted to do something – and be seen doing something – even if that something was wrong.
I’m guessing you see this same behavior at work on a daily basis. We create more reports and metrics that look nice, but never precipitate any real action to improve a situation. People hold meaningless meetings to philosophize on the problem without actually solving anything. And managers love to throw more resources on a struggling project, even though this rarely helps the situation. As Warren Buffet once put it, “You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”
In the face of uncertainty, our default choice becomes action over inaction, regardless of whether that contributes to the desired end state.
But our choice isn’t one of action or inaction. It’s in recognizing the specific problem that we need to solve.
And if we don’t know that, then that becomes the problem you need to solve.
“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” – John F. Kennedy
If you want to get to New York quickly, would you just start traveling as fast as possible in a random direction?
Probably not. Most people recognize the problem with this strategy. Yet they employ this very mentality when handling more complex problems.
They settle for speed. When they really need velocity.
Speed is distance traveled over time. If you’re making a lot of movement, say, running around in circles very fast, you’re likely generating a lot of speed.
Velocity, on the other hand, has a directional component. It’s aimed towards a specific purpose.
Most people look to generate speed. They look for the immediate action that gets them moving and checking things off their list. Yet while they’re busy moving fast in unrelated directions, they’re quickly passed by those who think in terms of velocity.
Action for the sake of action is like generating a lot of speed. It’s nice to move fast, but it’s unlikely to take you where you need to be.
Focused action, however, that directs us towards our end state, creates velocity. It applies that same speed in a productive manner. And it effectively closes the gap between where we are today and where we need to be.
Which all starts with clearly defining the problem that we need to solve. If we don’t know where we’re going, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get there.
Put another way, ask yourself, “How will we know when we’ve succeeded?”
If you can’t answer that, there’s a good chance you’re just settling for speed. And tiring yourself out in the process.
Think in Second and Third-Order Consequences
“By recognizing the higher-level consequences nature optimizes for, I’ve come to see that people who overweigh the first-order consequences of their decisions and ignore the effects of second-and subsequent-order consequences rarely reach their goals.” – Ray Dalio, Principles
The other main defense against action bias is to think in terms of second and third order consequences.
Most people think in terms of first-order consequences. They’re the easy, superficial answer to a problem. You’re hungry and you like chocolate. So you eat a candy bar.
First-order thinking is common – pretty much everyone can do it. Which, as with most things that pretty much anyone can do, doesn’t offer much of an advantage.
But the best choices tend to be first-order negative and second-order positive. Exercise has a negative first-order consequence (pain, time spent) with positive second-order consequences (better health, more energy). Personal growth always begins with a level of discomfort and inefficiency until it brings you closer to excellence. And starting a new company or innovation is never an easy trek in the beginning, but hopefully has long-term payoffs (even if it’s just experience and a bunch of great stories to tell).
It’s the people who look past these first-order obstacles and recognize the nth stage benefits that end up achieving their long-term goals. This minority is happy to invest in the initial difficulty based on the knowledge that it’s in pursuit of a bigger purpose.
People who fall victim to action bias typically fail to consider the second and third order consequences of their actions. If they did, they’d see that while the immediate consequence is a feeling of productivity, the secondary consequences don’t bring them any closer to their goals.
Keep asking yourself, “And then what?” to consider the downstream consequences – both intended and unintended – of your choices. And make sure you’re choosing actions whose long-term consequences bring you where you want to be. As Ray Dalio wrote,
Quite often the first-order consequences are the temptations that cost us what we really want, and sometimes they are the barriers that stand in our way. It’s almost as though nature sorts us by throwing us trick choices that have both types of consequences and penalizing those who make their decisions on the basis of the first-order consequences alone.
Be Useful. Not Just Busy.
“Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow.” – Doug Firebaugh
We’ve been trained to perceive hesitation as weakness, and restraint with indecision. We idolize those who make quick decisions and jump into action. Yet it’s often those who take the time to consider the problem and take more targeted action that affect real change.
Our bias for action is a powerful motivator – one that’s reinforced in many of our organizations. But it’s in having the discipline to overcome this mindset that we’re able to deliver greater success.
The next time you find yourself falling prey to action bias, stop. Take a breath. And ask yourself what problem you’re trying to solve. Ask how you’ll know when you’ve succeeded. Make sure your actions are focused towards this purpose. And cultivate a mindset that considers the second and third-order consequences.
Don’t just be busy. Be busy about something useful.
Or at the very least, just stop pushing that door-close button.