In their 1982 business book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman outline what they call “eight basics of management excellence”. This book has become a business classic, and its principles have been employed by many. In an interview nearly 30 years after the original book was published, Tom Peters was asked which of the eight basics would be most important or an absolute to be successful in business. Without hesitation, he responded “A Bias for Action is the most important. It’s not only the most important. It’s arguably more important by an order of magnitude today than it was in 1977 when we started the research.”  

While still more years have passed since Peters made these comments, they ring as true now as they ever did. Having a bias for action is a clear differentiating characteristic for leaders and leadership teams who successfully drive organizational growth and results.  

As defined by Wikipedia, bias is a disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing. Having a “bias for action” doesn’t mean simply taking action – it means putting a disproportionate weight on action, which is why it can be elusive for some. Leaders or leadership teams with a bias for action…

  • Make decisions and execute. They don’t just talk about what they want to do, they actually do it. Said differently, these are the leaders and teams where you regularly see evidence of them “walking the talk” and getting things done. 
  • Plan for impact and progress, not perfection. They create a thoughtful plan that gets to an action sooner rather than later instead of a perfect plan.   
  • Try stuff. They look for opportunities to do new things, take radical steps, break things, create change, and constantly evolve. . 
  • Anticipate obstacles and needed resources. They are candid and openly discuss what could get in the way, then they identify what resources might be needed and commit to securing those resources.
  • Don’t fear failure. They know a 100% success rate is unrealistic, and they are unafraid to fail. Most importantly, they embed an expectation in their culture that failure is a natural part of the journey to success and is an acceptable aspect of stretching to be the best we can be.
  • Don’t shy away from measuring progress. As the old adage goes, what gets measured gets done. They want to know how things are going and if they are getting to outcomes.
  • Learn and try again. If things don’t go as expected, they ask for feedback, look for the learning, fix it, and take another shot at being more effective. 
  • Transparently communicate. They set expectations, share context, explain what they are trying to do, why it is important for the organization, and share progress, even if things don’t go as planned. 

And, here is what is interesting. When a leader or a leadership team leads with a bias for action – you can see it and feel it. You see it in their interactions. You see it in their numbers. You see it in their people. You feel the energy in the organization. You feel a buzz that things are happening. And, most importantly, because people can see it and feel it, they start to replicate it. A bias for action becomes embedded in the culture, and all of the behaviors noted above are adopted throughout the organization.  

Think about that – an entire team that has a disproportionate weight on action. They execute, plan for progress (not perfection), try stuff without fear of failure, measure progress, learn, fix things, try again, and transparently communicate consistently and regularly because it is just a part of how they work.  

If you and your organization are already there, pat yourself on the back and consider how you can sustain and grow that moving forward. If you or your leadership team aren’t there, the good news is that it doesn’t take a huge investment to get started because it starts with you.  

To build a bias for action, use the characteristics noted as a quick assessment. What should you do more of? Where can you be more effective? What are one or two things you can do to start to embed a bias for action into your personal leadership? What are one or two things your leadership team can do to demonstrate a more consistent bias for action?  

To make this one of your most successful years, start by modeling the way.  Lead with a bias for action.