A Bias for Action Can Make You Fail

A bias for action can help you do big things and reach big goals. When we daydream, visualize, and collect data too much, we miss crucial deadlines and unique opportunities. Overthinking makes it harder to start, move through, and finish a major project.

The global ecommerce giant, Amazon, lists “bias for action” as #9 on its list of 14 leadership principles. The company’s website reads: “Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.”

It feels more productive to finish tasks than to plan them. A to-do list doesn’t become a done list until you tackle what’s on it.

A Just Do It mindset can get you unstuck, trigger action and create success. But it can also backfire and cause big failure in big projects.

Every big project basically has two phases: The first is planning. The second is delivery. A bias for action is vital in the delivery phase, which should be fast. But it hurts the planning phase, where it’s better to be slow.

In their book, How Big Things Get Done, authors Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner note that 99.5 percent of megaprojects go over budget, over schedule, fail to deliver promised results, or have some combination of these. An example is California’s high-speed rail project, which is now $100 billion in the red and is expected to run only from Merced to Bakersfield in 2030, instead of the full route between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Based on data gathered from 16,000 megaprojects, Professor Flyvbjerg and his team learned why some failed and others went well. The study included big buildings, tunnels, railroads, airports, nuclear power plants, solar and wind farms, IT systems, home renovations, and the Olympic Games.

A top reason for failed projects is rushed, superficial planning. They all use the Think Fast, Act Slow approach.

Successful projects follow the opposite. They apply the Think Slow, Act Fast pattern. With a reliable plan, they spend less time, money and efforts on the execution. Problems are fixed in the planning phase, not ignored until later in delivery.

“Slow is a consequence of doing planning right, not a cause,” say Flyvbjerg and Gardner. It’s not inherently wrong to experiment with options or try new ideas, rather than wait for perfect or complete data. But do this in the planning phase, not in the delivery stage, or when consequential decisions and actions are reversible, not irreversible.

To do big things, apply the Think Slow, Act Fast approach with these 5 action tips:

Tip #1 is to commit to not committing. Keep an open mind in the planning phase before you start delivering the project.

Avoid putting shovels in the ground right away. Don’t force yourself or your team to fill holes that should not have been dug in the first place. Practice the Roman principle, Festina Lente, which roughly translates to Make haste slowly.

In big projects, activate your System Two thinking, which is slow, deliberate and evidence-based. Reduce System One thinking, which is fast, reactive and intuitive.

The role of politics, money and power affect decision-making and the level of success. So do your cognitive biases, which weaken your judgment and make you less likely to spot risks, flaws, options and opportunities.

Commitment bias makes us lock in quickly to a course of action without truly considering the goals and exploring the alternatives. This makes us more vulnerable to the sunk cost fallacy, where we consider what was spent and lost in the past, rather than focus on whether it makes sense to invest more now.

If you start the project delivery too quickly, you will have a weak plan or no plan at all. The Sydney Opera House is a prime example.

In 1957, Danish architect Jorn Utzon won the government-sponsored competition to design the Opera House. Although his winning entry brought him global fame, Utzon received, perhaps unfairly, much of the blame for the cost overruns and engineering problems.

His entry involved a few sketches, which art critic Robert Hughes called “a magnificent doodle.” At the outset, he did not consult engineers on how to build the curved shells, which were at the core of his vision.

A rushed delivery amplified the effects of a weak plan. John Cahill, the premier of New South Wales at the time, was ill and close to his death. He wanted the Opera House to be part of his legacy. So, the building began even before Utzon finished his designs.

Mistakes were made, so part of the building had to be destroyed with dynamite. Then the rubble had to be cleared away for new construction to begin. By the time it was done in 1973, the construction had taken 14 years, instead of the scheduled 4 years. The final bill was $102 million, which was almost 15 times the estimated cost of $7 million.

The delivery phase is when you’re more vulnerable to major, unforeseen challenges. Make it as short as possible.

A black swan event is high-impact, extremely negative, and unpredictable. Examples are the 2000 to 2002 Dotcom crash, the 2007 to 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, and the 2016 Brexit.

Faster delivery helps to protect you from black swan events and increases the chance of success. In big projects, you can’t act fast if you don’t start with a solid, precise plan.

Tip #2 is to think from right to left. Always ask the most basic question: why?

In 1991, legendary architect, Frank Gehry, was asked to join the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum project. The regional government officials wanted to transform, in the center of the city, a big old building that used to be a wine warehouse. Instead of just accepting or passing on the project, Gehry asked a fundamental question that he asks every client: “Why are you doing this project?”

The officials said they wanted the museum to do for Bilbao what the Sydney Opera House had done for Sydney. With their steel and shipping industries gone, Bilbao was looking to become a prominent city, attract tourists from around the world, and grow the economy.

Gehry searched and found a neglected site on the riverfront, next to a spectacular bridge. It was similar to the location for the Sydney Opera House. He told the officials to build there and they agreed. The Guggenheim Bilbao has brought more prominence, tourism and economic growth than the officials ever expected.

The what you see is all there is (WYSIATI) fallacy makes us believe we know more than we do, when we’re in fact using our feelings, memories, and unconscious beliefs to fill the gaps and draw quick conclusions. Gehry bypasses this bias by asking meaningful questions and listening carefully to the answers. He finds out what the client really wants instead of take, at face value, what they think they want.

Asking why reminds us that a project is not the end by itself, but is a means to the end. A project is a series of tasks you must do to reach a desired outcome, usually in a certain time frame and within a specific budget. Know the ultimate purpose before you choose the project and the steps to finish it.

A standard planning tool is the flowchart. Starting from your left, you move through the boxes that tell you what to do to reach the final box on the right, which is your goal. But you must first figure out what goes in the box on the right. You can work backwards and reverse engineer the action steps only if you think from right to left.

What needs, fears, desires, goals and priorities are involved in the big project? If you know why you’re renovating your kitchen or hosting an event, you can better explore your options, minimize costs, avoid biases, protect against problems, and finish the project more efficiently and effectively.

Tip #3 is to tinker, test and experiment. Planning is not a passive process where you just sit, visualize and think abstractly about what you will do.

It goes beyond pushing paper, writing reports, and making flowcharts. It’s not a preliminary step, but a core part of working on a project.

Planning is an active process where your vision of the project can be analyzed and refined to create a road map to success. Because it’s hard to get things right the first time, you tinker, test, and experiment to verify if the ideas work.

Through modeling and simulating, or prototyping and testing, you use iteration or repetition to create the desired results. You don’t have to start digging and building right away to show progress.

Gehry and his team spent two years in the iteration process before construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao began. He starts with sketches and architectural drawings, then makes cardboard models or wooden models, before he moves to 3-D digital simulation. The overall design and structural integration are checked on different scales and from different angles before construction begins.

Pixar uses a similar iteration process. The studio created the world’s first computer-animated movie, Toy Story, in 1995. It has gone on to make many more films that earned critical acclaim and were box office hits.

[VIDEO CLIP: Jim Morris, President – Pixar Animation Studios, Producer (WALL-E, John Carter): "Everyone in Hollywood will tell you story is the most important thing, but not that many people act as if it when they’re writing their scripts or digging in or developing their project. Our business model is based on picking someone we think is a good story teller and then asking that person as a director to pitch three ideas typically."]

Pixar planning takes several months or years. The film director explores ideas, makes a rough outline and writes a script. Then artists draw storyboards of the scenes, which are photographed and strung together to simulate a movie. Voice-overs from employees are dubbed in and basic sound effects are added. Pixar employees and filmmakers then attend a screening of the simulated movie and provide feedback. The second version of the movie is then screened by a test audience to get more feedback. This is followed by iteration after iteration.

By the time the real movie is made and released, it’s about the 9th version. Planning is exhaustive, but it would be more costly to fix issues after production begins, when real animation on Pixar computers, voice-overs from famous actors, and professional scores and sound effects are being added.

Iteration creates several benefits: it allows you to experiment, which means you try, test, learn, prove, improve, and gain deep experience; it lets you test every part of the plan, instead of find problems later in the delivery; it helps you learn how things really work in incremental steps; it reduces relative costs because it’s less expensive to tweak a model or prototype than to fix the final product.

You might not have the most resources, but do what you can to make a minimum viable product or a maximum simulated product before you start building the final product.

Gehry used sketches, wooden blocks and cardboard models for his designs, long before he had access to 3-D simulation technology.

“Lack of technology isn’t the real barrier to adapting this approach; the barrier is thinking of planning as a static, abstract, bureaucratic exercise,” write Flyvbjerg and Gardner.

Tip #4 is to figure out what’s your LEGO - your basic building block – and keep adding one block to another.

Modularity lets you create big things from small things. When you build a small thing, you can repeat the process to make one big thing. No matter the type or size, big projects are best done with a series of small projects.

The construction of the Empire State Building took just one year and 45 days. It was on time and under budget when it officially opened on May 1, 1931. One reason for this success is that the floors were designed to be as similar as possible and many were identical. As the workers built each floor, they repeated the tasks, learned from the experience, and got faster.

In big projects, politics is often prioritized over experience, which is bad for delivery.

Modularity doesn’t just allow scalability, but also repetition and experimentation that build experience.
To learn more on how to finish big projects in smaller increments, check out my book, The Incrementalist. You can find it on Leanpub and Amazon. The link is in the show notes.

Tip #5 is to take the outside view, not just the inside view. Do not think of your project as unique, one-of-a-kind or never-been-done. Focus instead on how similar it is to others in a reference class.

Uniqueness bias is not the only problem. The planning fallacy leads us to underestimate the time, costs and risks associated with a project. It is linked to optimism bias, which is the tendency to believe we are less likely to suffer a negative event and more likely to achieve success.

Data from similar projects give you a more realistic estimate of true costs and time demands. With reference class forecasting, you compare your project to others in the reference class and choose the right anchor. You calculate the mean of time spent, costs, and outcomes in projects that have been done. You then adjust up or down based on real differences with the average in the class.

In your forecasting, don’t define your class too narrowly, which makes it harder to collect data. Even a small amount of data has more value than none. Data from one finished project will give you a reference point – if not a reference class. Stick closely to the class mean as your anchor. The more adjustments you make, the more guesswork and biases you introduce into the forecasting.

Certain types of projects like the Olympic Games, IT systems, big dams and nuclear power plants have extreme outcomes. They have a fat-tailed distribution where there is regression to the tail. They don’t follow a normal distribution, which regresses to the mean. But even if the anchor isn’t great, it’s better to use it than nothing. Just make sure to have margins, reserves and contingency plans for extreme outcomes.

After you make a strong plan with these 5 action tips, you can then get into delivery mode.

The significance of planning is often downplayed. Renowned social scientist, Albert O. Hirschman, noted that planning reveals problems and it’s better to be optimistic. According to his Principle of the Hiding Hand, planning can be bad because if we knew the real costs and challenges of projects, few would be started. He says this is unfortunate because people are highly creative in fixing problems. The theory of beneficial ignorance or providential ignorance says projects deliver higher-than-expected results with less planning.

Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios was built from six drawings and a lot of pointing, says the architect, John Storyk. After it opened in 1970, it became a recording studio for top artists like Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Patti Smith. It is the oldest recording studio in New York City and is still thriving.

But hard data shows there is a small number of success stories without planning. Professor Flyvbjerg concludes that Hirschman’s theory doesn’t hold up. And that Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and author of the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is right. Kahneman found that optimism bias is “the most significant of the cognitive biases.”

Hirschman was right about human beings having the ability to creatively solve problems. But you don’t need to be deep in delivery mode to spark creative ideas. Use the think slow, act fast pattern to plan carefully, deliver effectively, and get the best results in big projects.

To dive deeper on the incrementalist approach to productive living, you may reach out to me for coaching or speaking events at dyan@dyanwilliams.com. And check out the book The Incrementalist on leanpub or Amazon.

If you found value in this episode, click the like and share buttons and drop your feedback in the comments section. And if you want to keep learning how to make big changes in small steps, be sure to subscribe. These things will help the show grow and reach you and others. Thank you for being with me and join me again on The Incrementalist.

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