November 24, 2010

Have a bias for action


The greatest analysis is just that: an analysis. What really solves problems is using your analysis to implement your solution, so have a bias for action whenever you can.

First, recognize that analyzing is not solving

When teaching problem solving, I use an example very early in the first session, to show how to develop logic trees. I ask the group to give their ideas on how to sell high-priced suits.

We spend maybe ten minutes in the brainstorming session, capturing ideas on the board: “by having Brad Pitt model our brand”, “by identifying how much the competition charges”, “by using high-quality wool”, “by setting shop on Savile Row”, “by investigating who our market is”, etc.

A "how" issue tree analyzes the various ways in which we can answer the key question; it doesn't describe a process for doing it.

A how issue tree / issue map analyzes the various ways in which we can answer the key question; it doesn’t describe a process for doing it.

Then we classify these ideas in two groups: the yes-but-no and the yes-but-yes. The yes-but-no are all the process contributions, such as identifying how much the competition charges and who our market is. The yes-but-yes are all the direct potential answers, i.e. getting Mr. Pitt to model, using great materials, having a shop in London, etc.

The yes-but-no answers are not technically wrong, but they are just steps in a process. That’s not what we’re looking for. What we’re looking for is proposals to answer the key question in various manners, that’s what the yes-but-yes answers do. Maybe getting Mr. Pitt to model will boost up our sales. Maybe not. But if we decide to enlist him, at least we’re taking an active step at solving our problem, whereas investigating your market won’t get you to sell suits in the short term.

Now when I was teaching this at UDEM, I was very lucky because my groups had students from all master’s programs. Usually the MBA students, and to a lesser extent the engineering students, would produce the yes-but-no answers whereas the education, graphic designers, and humanities students were the ones that were good at lateral thinking, i.e. identifying different alternatives to answer the key question. In particular, for some MBA students, it was close to impossible to think in something different than a process. That’s just a side note, not to fault MBA students, but rather to point out that in our professions we are conditioned to think in a specific way, and it is difficult to think differently. It’s good to know where you stand so that you can redirect yourself if you’re too biased towards analysis or surround yourself with people that aren’t. (I’ve only seen people having trouble thinking in terms of different ways to answer one question; in my experience, everyone can get to think in terms of a sequential process to solve the question in a specific way.)

Anyway, the point is that analyzing is not solving. It can be a step in the solution process—and, indeed, this site highly recommends that analysis be a fundamental step in your solution process—but at the end of the day, if all you do is analyzing, you haven’t solved your problem.

Do both analyzing and acting if you can

So what you do is you focus on the analysis but you also implement as much as you can along the way. “Ready, fire, aim” as Tom Peters says.

The key is to implement quick wins that won’t close any doors when you’re done with your analysis. If your problem is to identify how to go from New York to London, you can’t really buy a boat ticket before you’ve analyzed if flying serves your purpose better. But you can, for instance, check/renew your passport; that will be useful either way.

In principle, a bias for action is applicable across the problem-solving process

As you progress in the problem-solving process, increasingly focus on actions

Here is another one: with a couple of partners we’re starting a company to sell wind-powered water purification devices. These are windmills coupled to reverse-osmosis membranes that can provide clean drinking water to poor communities in remote areas. We’re still analyzing which market to target first: governments, NGOs, international organizations, etc. But they’re are things that we can do now that will be useful in any case, such as protecting the intellectual property, or building a website (which, as I am writing this, is down, but never mind).

So, when solving complex problems, see your actions as a part of a portfolio: dedicate most of your effort to the in-depth, profound solutions but keep a bit of bandwidth to pursue today actions that might get you closer to a solution without really closing doors in the future. As you move forward in your analysis, become increasingly biased towards action