Two kinds of inaction

I was recently thinking about inaction in response to some event. It was brought to mind by some research I was reading on giving managers the choice to not act (wish I could remember where I was reading it.). It turns out that given an A or B choice, managers are more likely to make a decision than if you give them an A, B or “no decision” choice. In the latter, they are more likely to not act. I suppose that’s not entirely surprising, since we likely frame our worlds around the options posed to us and don’t think much beyond that. Want someone to take action, offer them only two paths of action.

As I kept thinking on it, I started to wonder what drove inaction among managers. One possible reason for inaction, and probably the more common one I would guess, is not knowing what to do in response to a situation. You see a project risk, but can’t think of a way to mitigate it, so you don’t.

Then there’s another kind of inaction. You don’t take action because you know to not do anything. That is, you observe something happening that might normally drive someone to take action, but because of additional knowledge you know to do nothing. What you’re seeing might be a statistical blip, or real but already mitigated by existing processes, etc. I don’t think this type of inaction happens often enough. Going back to the original research, we don’t offer the choice of inaction enough, and given how little we seem to know about software development within our organizations, even if given the option of inaction, we don’t know when we should choose it.

Data is exciting to me in two ways. One, it shows when something is abnormal, but it also shows when something isn’t abnormal. Knowing that something is typical is a great way to know not to take action. We see it in our own lives in little ways. When you have a newborn, any little cough or sneeze is likely to cause you to race off to the doctor. After a little bit you begin to learn what is normal vs. abnormal with your kid. Suddenly if they get the sniffles you just tuck them up in a blanket, turn on the TV and let them rest. Knowledge allows you to choose inaction (and save you the cost of a visit to the doctor.)

Inaction is free, presuming you know when to choose it. Using data to help you figure out when not to act is a smart investment.

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