High Grades for Type A’s

Influential business writer, Tom Peters, shares a formative experience he had as a young engineer in his book The Excellence Dividend. He was assigned to a division of the US Navy known as the Seabees. The Seabees were builders of infrastructure which ensured that military materials could get where they needed to be. The motto of this unit was “can do.” They were given little training and less resources. Their responsibility was simply to figure it out and get things done. No excuses. Do it right. Do it fast. Period. Peters’ experience with the Seabees become foundational to his business philosophy. They were able to achieve seemingly impossible tasks like creating airstrips in under two weeks on rock slabs. They didn’t have set hours or shifts. It was a seven day a week, twenty-four hour a day responsibility. The tasks were assigned and these soldiers then were left to their own devices to figure it out and get it done. Bad weather? Who cares. Bad guys? Doesn’t matter. Absence of materials? Get creative and find a substitute. Things don’t need to be pretty, just effective. Initiative was essential. The soldiers’ response to their directives wasn’t a solid salute offered in their crisp military attire, it was the motto, “Can do.” And, do they did.

Peters recounts a separate experience which educated him on the power of action when he served as an assistant to a leader in a department of the White House in the early 70s. Peters’ boss, Fred Malek, worked tirelessly. In The Excellence Dividend, Peters recalls, “Every conversation with Fred featured relentless, impatient, even rude questioning about next steps, starting with the next steps to be taken today, and tomorrow you’d damn well better be able to report concrete progress.” Peters observed this approach with reverence and even incredulity at the ability of his boss to get things done in a overwhelmingly bureaucratic environment.

Legendary GE CEO, Jack Welch, is known for being a guru of strategy. However, even he credits success more to action than strategizing. Welch offers, “In real life, strategy is actually very straightforward. Pick a general direction… and implement like hell.” When Welch took the reins at GE, one of his earlier moves was to get the strategic planning department sending a clear message throughout the organization that action mattered and trumped thinking about tactics. In Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan write, “Execution is the job of the business leader… The first things I look for (in a job candidate) are energy and enthusiasm for execution. Does the candidate talk about the thrill of getting things done, or does she keep wandering back to strategy or philosophy?” Is the candidate a doer or a deliberator? Do they want to discuss options or take action?

Ulysses Grant is an iconic figure in the history of the U.S. Military. In a biography of Grant written by Josiah Bunting, Bunting points out that Grant had “an almost inhuman disinterest in strategy.” Grant was on the go. He details his military strategy noting, “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.” Straightforward and actionable. Supporting his approach, Grant wrote, “One of my superstitions had always been when I started to go anywhere or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop, until the thing intended was accomplished.”

In his biography Bode, America’s most accomplished Alpine ski racer Bode Miller writes, “By both disposition and point of pride, I’m a fast skier, not a fancy skier. I see it this way: speed is an essential component of the physical universe; technique is not. Speed is what makes it a race; technique gives other people something to talk about while it’s happening. Despite these basic truths, in my experience most coaches see speed as the result of proper technique. This is birdbrained, and it puts us at natural odds. They’re confusing truth with beauty. Perfect form may be beautiful, but in ski racing, winning times translate as the truth.” Speed as a strategy is a good metaphor not just for ski racing but for life. A sense of urgency to do will get you further than a penchant to ponder. Agility is a core part of adaptability. Moving beats meandering. Results trump tactics. Speed supersedes style. Lead with speed. Seek speed. Faster. This mentality first, then pursue technique or strategy in support of speed. A core characteristic of champions is clarity of purpose. The point of the pursuit is speed. It’s the only marker of success. This is what all efforts should be in service of, speed. Instead of majoring in minors like most would be focusing on technique, a winner like Bode knows what matters. He’s wise about his whys. Bode’s commitment to speed is his compass.

Moreover, his clarity fuels his confidence in himself and his approach which allows him to not be swayed by what others are doing. He preferred purpose to being pretty. He’d rather lead with speed than follow someone else’s creed. Bode’s quote reflects the mindset of an innovator. He’s willing to avoid the orthodox and be willing to be a hero of heterodox. He’s not looking over each shoulder watching what is going on beside him. He knows what matters and is focused on that. He knows that to lead he has to separate himself by doing things differently than others. He’s leaped into the leading lane by putting getting faster first. His focus supports the Evolution of Excellence. He’s looked and learned and sees the disconnect between style and speed. As a result, he’s chosen to not conform and seek to outperform by using fast as his filter for determining function.

After writing the business classic Leading Change, John Kotter wrote a follow up book called A Sense of Urgency. In his work consulting with businesses Kotter observed that change initiatives died on the vine not because of poor planning but due to deflated direction. The will to change, the sense of urgency simply stalled the efforts. Kotter wrote, “Put simply, a strong sense of urgency is moving from an essential element in big change programs to an essential asset in general.” In an article in Bloomberg Business titled “Type A Organization Strategies,” a bias for action was supported as the number one key success factor in business and was identified as “Experiment Fearlessly.” Michael Bloomberg himself wrote in Bloomberg by Bloomberg of the vitality of action noting, “While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs trying to make the design perfect, we’re already on prototype version #5. By the time our rivals are ready with wires and screws, we are on version #10. It gets back to planning versus acting: We act from day one, others plan how to plan for months.”

Each of these examples are of successful leaders getting things done by accelerating action and demurring to debate. From business, to the military, sports, and even in politics, a Bias For Action (BFA) can be our BFF. Progress is pursued by those with a bias to do. In an interview with Rance Crain of Advertising Age, Kaplan Thaler offered an explanation for why her agency had developed so far so fast. Thaler is seen as an advertising legend and she explained, “We never concentrated one minute on the future. We always focused on what can we do today… We just did the best we could every day.” She wasn’t orchestrating management retreats to determine strategy or craft a vision. She was committed to acting and doing in the here and now. Tom Peters describes the posture of a bias for action offering the acronym JJI to reflect “Just Jump In.” Richard Branson wrote a book with a title that captures the idea, Screw it, Let’s do it.

A bias for action leads to the speed, agility, and nimbleness that is the advantage of smaller enterprises. The strategy that works for individuals works for smaller businesses. In the military it’s referred to as prioritize and execute. This is the mindset that gets things done. It making sense of complex situations and taking actions quickly. Doers can get to the meat of the matter. It is also seen in those that have a high tolerance for uncertainty. Perfection is the enemy of the good. Getting going is better than thinking. Another way of looking at this approach is viewing it as hustle. A bias for action is getting after it. It’s about doing, again and again. Former NBA basketball superstar Kevin Durant once observed, “Hard work always beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.” Developing a bias for action goes a long way to compensating for an absence of resources or skills. Doing beats thinking. Acting beats strategizing. We can never know everything. Deferring decisions while we dig up data to deliberate is a way to procrastinate. Folk like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Friedrich Engels have been credited with, “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.” Apparently, Napoleon offered, On s’engage et puis on voit, which translates to we jump into the fray, then we figure out what next to do. As Maya Angelou offers, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Those that produce feel the same fears and insecurities as do the rest of us. They, though, face those fears as the desire to deliver is greater. They know perfection isn’t possible. They know mishaps aren’t a maybe, but a definite. Nonetheless, they are willing to move forward in the face of all these uncertainties. As the artist, Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes.” Those that accomplish things do so with their acts. They believe their actions matter.  A favorite saying of Walt Disney was “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

When we act, we communicate to ourselves and the world that we’re intentional and serious. Others gravitate to our orbit and want to help. Additionally, once we begin to act, we begin to learn. We can adapt on the fly much better than when standing still. Winners act. Winners want the ball. High performers believe their actions matter. Get going so you can get learning. We can’t plan our way to the podium. We have to perform. Before we can perform, we have to participate. Moreover, action is embedded in satisfaction. Developing a bias for action isn’t just good for business it’s good for the soul. The late Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of England, explained why action is part of satisfaction where she’s quoted in As I said to Denis: The Margaret Thatcher Book of Quotations, “Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.” Making progress is success. We’re only satisfied after we’ve done something. We never start with satisfaction. Action first. Or, as a separate UK Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, noted, “Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”

There’s plenty of excuses and reasons to wait. Lack of inspiration, preparation, permission, encouragement, resources, timing, location, others, direction, confidence, fear of rejection, fear of success, fear of failing, and on, and on, and on… You can only learn so much from passive methods. We can’t get great from spectating. At some point, we’ve got to get going. We’ll close with a thought offered in an email from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, “As far as life philosophies go, ‘The right time is right now’ isn’t a bad one. Most of us would benefit from a greater bias toward action. If you have fast, you can try more things. And if you try more things, you’re likely to find something that works for you.”