When “Bias Toward Action” Goes Wrong

When “Bias Toward Action” Goes Wrong

If you’ve been on the job market in the past several years, you’ve undoubtedly come across the phrase “bias toward action” in one or more job descriptions or company overviews, or even during a call with a recruiter.  It’s become something of a buzzword, and in the way that many buzzwords do, has a meaninglessness to it that often causes us to shrug it off as just another “thing that ‘they’ say”.  The problem is that having an “bias toward action” can also be code for “completely unstructured” or “constant fire drills”, so rather than shrug it off we should dig deeper to uncover the real meaning behind the term for that particular organization.

“Bias Toward Action” is Generally Good

Don’t get me wrong — on the broad spectrum between Analysis Paralysis and Ready/Shoot/Aim, I’d much rather be on the side that’s more likely to act and less likely to over-analyze.  Nobody wants to waste time confirming hypotheses that people generally think are more likely to be right than wrong.  Having a culture where action is valued over analysis can generally be a good thing.  It encourages people to experiment, to test their gut feelings, and to eventually develop a better sense of when more data makes for better results versus when more data simply piles on top of what’s already determined the outcome.  It also reminds us that we won’t always be right — and for such a bias to actually matter, failure must be an acceptable outcome, provided that we learn something from it.

Overall, on the grand spectrum of inaction versus action, it’s really impossible to argue that having a “bias toward action” is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, “Bias Toward Action” is Often Misapplied

The modern use of the term “bias toward action” most likely stems from Jeff Bezo’s (and by extension, Amazon.com’s) now-famous “14 Principles” of leadership.  These are awesome principles, don’t get me wrong, but they work in combination, not in isolation.  And one has to read them in context of one another — taking “Bias Toward Action” outside of the other thirteen principles is a recipe for disaster.

Why’s that?  Because in the abstract, and without the constraints imposed by the other thirteen principles (mainly, “Be Right.  A Lot.”) all that you wind up with is a culture of Ready/Fire/Aim — rather than Ready/Aim/Fire.  And what this usually means for Product Managers is:

  • Lots of randomization as strategy shifts randomly in response to whatever “action” is required right now;
  • A huge amount of fire-drills, since decisions are being made based on very little actual research, data, or understanding;
  • Shelving of projects that have started work, since something else becomes more important, and our “bias toward action” requires that we move on it now; and/or
  • A lack of interest in establishing any actionable vision, strategy, or tactical plan since doing so shows “bias toward inaction”.

If all that we value is a “bias toward action” then we’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way.  And because most people focus on the buzzword and not the context behind it, misapplication of this bias hurts everyone.

Implement a Healthy Bias Toward Action

Let’s take a look at how Amazon actually defines this principle in their organization — the precise phrasing here is both telling and important in understanding how to have a healthy bias toward action:

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Breaking that down, it’s really saying three things:

  • Speed matters, and unreasonable delays cost us.
  • If a decision or action is reversible, then it doesn’t need extensive study.
  • The value isn’t just in taking action, but in taking calculated risks; for a risk to be calculated it must be based on some data.

Taking a risk because you don’t want to do the requisite research is recklessness, not a “bias toward action”.  And no company can afford to be reckless with their decision-making;  it establishes a culture where there’s no accountability because there’s nothing to be accountable for.  It sets us all up for failure, because even if we’re right half the time, that means that we’re also wrong half the time.

Measured risk is an important success factor for any business — large or small.  But measure risk requires that some amount of research, data collection, and analysis is performed before we take an action.  We may be biased toward taking action, and the data may convince us not to take that action after all, but unless we understand the amount of risk involved, we’re just throwing our fate (and the fate of our products) to the wind.

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