Some time ago, our COO John, stopped by my desk to discuss an IP application we were providing feedback on. He said he had reviewed the application and from his perspective everything looked good. We were still waiting on feedback from a few others, but it was evident that the application had been thoroughly reviewed. Responding to a question around how long we should wait for the other’s feedback, John said something that has stuck with me ever since: “Well, I have a bias towards action, so my inclination is to ship it.”
I can’t say exactly why this usage at this time had such a profound impact on me, but it did.
I’ve seen the phrase before. It’s been used in many product management job postings, such as: “candidate must possess a bias towards action.” The Institute of Design at Stanford sees a “Bias Towards Action” as a core principle of design thinking—it’s also implicitly an overarching theme in the Jason Fried book “Rework” about how to succeed in business. However, this was the first time that I saw it used for something other than management speak. It was in that moment that I began to see it as a frame for how to understand the role of producers.
How a Bias Towards Action Relates to the Role of a Producer
After several days of reflection, it is now my humble opinion that a good producer must have a bias towards action. In its most basic sense, a bias towards action means the promotion of action-based work instead of discussion-based work. In a project, it boils down to conducting research, testing prototypes and getting engaged users—all with the goal of inspiring a new way of thinking and coming to a consensus as a group.
It is this final phase, to come to consensus as a group, that I believe strikes the strongest chord with me. As a producer, I have spent countless hours in rooms with super smart designers and engineers arguing about the value of certain features and tactics of approach. As a general rule, this disagreement serves an important function for understanding the problem at hand and the merits of each approach. However, in just about every one of these discussions, there comes a time at which both sides make extremely valid points. After all, we live in a complicated time where most actions are not black or white, but instead made up of many overlapping shades of gray.
It is in this moment, when the problem has been vetted, that a producer must possess a bias towards action—moving the decision outside the confines of the discussion and into the hands of the users—beginning the research process.
Other Uses of a Bias Towards Action
The above explanation of the value of having a bias towards action only shows one small instance where producers with this skill can provide the most value.
It is moving outside the confines of the war room where having this aptitude can provide practical value each and every day. This can be seen through other expressions: “move fast and break things,” “ask for forgiveness, not permission,” “fail fast,” etc. But perhaps even more importantly, it can be manifested in the day-to-day hygiene of a team’s process.
For example, in running a meeting, a producer with a bias towards action will sense when productivity is in a stalemate because either: The team can’t come to a decision
A team doesn’t know when to begin coming to a decision—and is now in an endless cycle of deliberation
A stakeholder in the project is required to make a decision, but is too busy (or uncertain)
The team is scared to make a decision because they don’t want to be held accountable for that decision
The organization has cultivated a culture where important decisions, strategies and tactics require buy-off from leadership or a key stakeholder
When this producer senses the productivity slowdown (or full-stop), they will schedule a meeting. This meeting will have a bias towards action by requiring a decision or an artifact as a direct output of that meeting. The setup of this meeting would have a summary of what it is for—including the decision(s) that need to be made, which will be sent out to attendees beforehand in the form of an agenda with a DRI (direct responsible individual) attached to each decision. An alternative approach, that we are beginning to experiment with more here at Uncorked Studios, is for the producer to frame an exercise (e.g., Gamestorming by David Gray) to help drive the team toward consensus.
How to Have a Bias Towards Action
Like many things in this world, having a bias towards action is not simply a switch you can turn on after reading a particularly convincing blog post. It is a habit that must be worked on, but it can be done. As Charles Duhigg wrote in his best-selling book, “The Power of Habit,” start by recognizing the cue (or trigger) for the habit. In your organization, this may be a well-meaning senior staff member who takes too much onto their plate or it could be a sticky problem that slows progress to a snail pace. No matter the cue, start by recognizing what it is and when it’s happening.
The next step in forming a new habit is the routine. The routine is the behavior itself, the action you take. When you recognize an opportunity to have a bias towards action, take the action. Please be aware that this does not mean rudely cutting off all conversation in a meeting, but instead to begin listening for the right opportunity to steer the conversation towards an action. Whether that is jotting down an action item, making a decision, or simply moving onto the next item down the agenda (when no action is required).
The final step for forming a new habit is reward. In his new book, “Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations,” behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely examines motivation and finds that the best way to motivate someone is to simply acknowledge them. This becomes the most important step in an organization to create a culture with a bias towards action: acknowledgement. When you notice someone on your team having a bias towards action, make mention of it. Maybe walk around with a pocketful of gift cards. Maybe just write them a nice thank-you note on a post-it. For example, at Uncorked Studios, we have a cultural convention that goes by the name of “tiny gratitudes,” where employees anonymously write thank you notes on post-its for deeds well-done. These notes are then read aloud at our monthly all-hands meeting. The important takeaway is that no matter what action you take, once you begin to acknowledge the actions of others, they will in-turn begin to recognize your efforts.
As you consider developing this habit it is also important to recognize the slippery slope a bias towards action can take you on. Contemplation, the act of looking at something carefully for a long time, is an important leadership attribute as any. And the world would be a whole lot less beautiful without it. Each situation should be carefully considered before blindingly calling for action, and a good leader will look to his team for cues. However, if on a digital project you find yourself repeatedly in a situation where you feel you’re not moving forward, try biasing towards action and see where it gets you.