Make BFA Your BFF

In the 80s, several Canadian comics found their footing starring on a television show called Second City Television or SCTV. Stars like Dan Akroyd, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Rick Moranis, and Dave Thomas all came to life on SCTV. This show launched many great comedy skits including one that remains a classic decades later which captured the hearts of game show enthusiasts. A skit involving a battle of wits of night school attendees brought us the “disconnect her buzzer” line. Racing to hit buzzers remains a key part of game shows still today. A proven, winning strategy is for contestants to hit their buzzer before even hearing the full question be posed. They want to win the race to making a buzz and then figure out both what the question is and how to answer it. They act first, then think. It seems like borderline impulsivity is being incented. The race to respond is the first one that must be won and implies a leap of faith and willingness to act.

In business, this type of energy is embedded in many hard charging leaders. Patrick Bet-David writes in Your Next Five Moves about this energy being essential to entrepreneurs, “A heightened sense of urgency is a trait that the most successful entrepreneurs share. For them, every day is a battle, and they treat it as though it’s a matter of life and death. It gives them that urgent energy that translates into a business edge.” Urgency was an idea that infected Amazon from its earliest days. Back in 1998 as the business was getting going, Jeff Bezos and his team sat together to craft values for their budding organization. Of the five values delineated, one was a “Bias for Action.” This value continues to be part of Amazon’s philosophy more than two decades later. Over the years the clarity of how Amazon views a Bias for Action has evolved becoming “Bias for action: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.”  Before Amazon, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, in their business classic, In Search of Excellence identified A Bias for Action as the number one of eight characteristics of excellent companies.

Perhaps we can accept that speed is a fact of life in the world of business? The Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland could have been describing the modern work world when she said, “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” Change is constant and the world isn’t waiting to work with us on our timelines. Elbert Hubbard came up with the following over a hundred years ago. “The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.” If this was true then, it’s more so the case today. Business strategist, blogger, and author, Tiago Forte noted in a podcast interview, “I think a lot of what we’re seeing is that the time horizon of change is shortening. It used to make sense to make long range plans. As the pace of change, accelerates, the window of time where something works gets shorter. That, in turn, means speed is becoming really important. It’s no longer enough to see an opportunity. You need to be able to quickly close the gap and step into that window of opportunity.”

Unfortunately, in spite of the reality of the relentless pace of change. Speed isn’t something we welcome in decision making. We’re held by inertia to the status quo or we see speed as being careless, sloppy, or reckless. Associated with the pace of change in business is a perpetual state of uncertainty. Little is constant. This uncertainty is uncomfortable. The discomfort breeds a desire to deliberate. Our meetings on a decision drag on day after day with some items hitting our agenda for years. We can struggle to convert collaboration into commitment. Yet, too much deliberation is like grinding gears, it is just awful noise that doesn’t move us forward. Some reasons for our struggles to make decisions through collaboration were introduced in an earlier article. Instead of being sidelined with indecision as a result of not knowing what the future holds other than change, we should work to find this reality liberating. Our decisions mean less as a result of the constant change. We’re almost better off flipping a coin, making a choice, and focusing our efforts on action. The cost of deliberating is rarely factored in to the cost of a decision. Vaden points out in Take the Stairs that “Procrastination is one of the most expensive invisible costs in business today.” It’s worth considering that the decision itself may be less important than the actions taken. There are consequences to delaying or deferring decisions. At the forefront of our discussions should be the question: What is the cost of delaying a decision versus picking something and executing flawlessly?

We should embrace a quote attributed to prolific science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, who came up with “First you jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” Ring that buzzer first like our Night School Hi Q contestants. We don’t need to know exactly what we’re doing and how before we get started. The decision is in the do. Not knowing is not an excuse to stop going. Acting in the face of uncertainty is the only way to build certainty. Frederick Douglass was a slave that ran away and became an advocate for abolition. He went on to become a public figure that was influential to ending slavery. Douglass wrote, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Only when he transitioned from hoping and thinking to acting was he able to make a difference.

In the classic business book, Leading Change, John Kotter writes of the struggles businesses face leading change initiatives. Newton’s laws of motion apply not just to the world of physics. Newton defined inertia when introducing his three laws of motion. Inertia, the idea that an object at rest will stay at rest until acted on by a force applies to business as well. The bigger the organization, the heavier mass implying more force needed to overcome inertia. The status quo bias is strong. Most change initiatives not only flounder, but fail outright. Kotter and his research team found that over 70% of change efforts fail or fizzle out because the process isn’t purposefully pursued. Changing course is a challenge. In business multiple factors act as mass which incent inertia and sustain the status quo. People are content where they are. It’s comforting to know one’s place. In The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene wrote, “You are your own worst enemy. … Since nothing seems urgent to you, you’re only half involved in what you do….” Without an immediate, building on fire type of emergency, change is viewed as disruptive not productive. Additionally, we may be patting ourselves on the back for our past success and feel like we are doing just fine. These issues can be compounded in a organization where information across departments isn’t fully shared. With the narrow lens of a piece of the business, it’s easier to overlook problems and opportunities that the organization as a whole may be exposed to. Stuck in our silos we sail along the status quo. Only once we see our situation as serious as a heart attack, do we find ourselves energized and embrace the idea of action.

Some suggest life’s a marathon and not a sprint. Those that hold this view haven’t tried to run at the pace of professional marathon runners. These folk stride with purpose. Their marathon march is brisk. Most of us couldn’t keep up with them for 100 metres let alone mile after mile. We need to run away from the perspective that we have time and treat more of our day like a race. Having too little time is less of a problem than believing we have plenty. Tim Grover trainer to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and other NBA greats wrote Winning. In the book, Grover notes, “To me, a sense of urgency is the ultimate distinction between those who win and those who watch others win. That sense of “gotta have it now” defined Kobe’s spirit. His impatience was legendary; there was always work to be done and he had zero tolerance for those who wouldn’t do it. Every day of his life was about the urgency to win something, anything, everything.”

Vaden encourages us to develop a bias for action writing, “We need to stop spending so much of our time trying to make the right decisions and instead start spending our time making decisions and then making them right.” Author Samuel Johnson noted that “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.” We can deliberate and dither while our will withers. All talk and no action leads to just noise and no traction. Negotiations between vendors and purchasers and companies in merger conversations often drift into what’s known as “deal fatigue.” The parties slowly lose interest in doing anything as discussions slip sideways month after month with no end in sight. In the book Dedicated, author Pete Davis suggests, “The challenge of choosing is less about picking the ‘right’ future and more about what to do with the future we inevitably pick. As the Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Ed Batista puts it, we should focus less on making the right decisions, and more on making sure our decisions turn out right. Fellow Stanford professor Baba Shiv, who studies the neuroscience of decision-making, makes a similar point: The major factor for successful decisions is not what option decision-makers choose, but whether the decision-makers remain committed to their choice.”

Ryan Holiday writes in Courage is Calling, “You can’t beat a problem by debating it, only by deciding what you’re going to do about it and then doing it.” Holiday writes of US General George Marshall’s bias for action. When tired of listening to his team debate a decision endlessly, Marshall would interject offering, “Gentlemen, don’t fight the problem! Decide it!” Where we’re worried about getting a decision wrong, we deliberate to prolong. Sadly, by doing nothing we’re ensuring we don’t make progress. The irony is that as we look back on our lives, our regrets lie more with actions we didn’t take than with mistakes made. Actress Tallulah Bankhead in her autobiography reflects, “If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.” It’s the case for businesses as well. Author and blogger, James Clear notes in an email that “The sooner you make a choice, the sooner you can make an adjustment.” There’s great value to getting on with things. Aspiration is better than apathy. Perspiration is better than procrastination. Make a decision. Any decision. And then allocate energy and effort to execution. Mark Twain is credited with observing that “the secret to getting ahead is getting started.” Or like the book title suggests, Ready, Fire, Aim.  Excellence exists in the executing. Devalue the weight of the decision and work on implementing.

Kotter’s research showed that even though most change efforts don’t go well, around 10% offer very positive results. His team considered the key starting step for successful change initiatives is developing a sense of urgency. We must be moved to move. Abraham Lincoln pointed out, “He who does something at the head of one regiment will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred.” The biggest decision is not the what but the why. Determining a why that is big enough that means a decision must be made drives the process. Urgency is driven by necessity. The greater the need, the greater the energy driving change. Do enough people in the organization absolutely believe that change is needed? There’s either a real crisis that captures the attention of everyone or leaders must work to communicate the urgency of the situation to gain attention. If the communication is coming from the top and is persistent, staff will begin to believe action is needed. If they see actions being taken by those at the top that have consequences to them, staff lower down will become more invested in the idea of change.

When it comes to your business, whether it is hiring, customer service, or sales, ask yourself and your team regularly (semi-annually or quarterly) “How can we reduce the time it takes to get things done?” Bet-David offers the following as an approach to consider, “Take a sheet of paper and list the steps of any function in your business. Examine how you can eliminate one of the steps. Assess which steps you can shorten. Then beta test your revised steps. Make adjustments based on the test. Implement every tool you can to compress time frames.” Additional questions to consider asking your team, Where are our bottlenecks? Can we make decisions faster? Can we improve training and education to help speed things up? Try changing your question on a strategic decision from should we do x to how do we do x? Eliminate evaluating and steer the conversation to implementing. Vaden suggests we “Make a list of all the things in your life that are “should-do’s” and identify which ones are important enough to be converted into “How will I do’s?”

Once we get going, we’re like a snowball rolling downhill. Our speed increases and we make progress. To revisit Newton, once moving, we’re living his first law of motion. Once an object is in motion, it continues in motion. Momentum becomes our friend. Explorer and mountaineer W.H. Murray noted, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!’”

Creatives know this all too well. If they feel like they have writer’s block or aren’t sure where to begin a painting, they learn that sitting around waiting to feel inspired or to be hit with an insight simply doesn’t work. They need to do something. As soon as they start sketching, scribbling, or even copying something they find themselves flooded with creative thoughts. They act their way into creativity by doing. Charles Kettering, an American businessman, inventor, and engineer, noted the value of acting as the only way to work through struggles when writing, “Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I never heard of anyone ever stumbling on something sitting down.” At its core, a bias for action reflects the skill of initiative. Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was known for his prolific production. He was anything but idle. During his lifetime, he published over 26,000 art pieces. These included paintings, sculptures, and more. He produced deep into his later years. He lived for 91 years. If he produced his pieces from the age of 20 through his death, he was producing art at a rate of one piece per day for over 70 years. A bias for action was a best friend forever for Picasso. He embodies this approach when he noted, “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” Implementation is more important than ideas. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you don’t act, nothing happens. James Clear gives us the question, “What if you stopped trying to think your way through it and started to act your way through it? There’s no, single, perfect, guaranteed, right way. Develop a BFA as your BFF. Make a Bias for Action your Best Friend Forever. Better Get Busy.