A little less conversation a little more action please

It’s close to fifty years since Tom Peters summarised the 8 attributes of excellence, born from researching the most successful companies. The first of the eight was “Do it. Fix it. Try it” which was subsequently re-labelled as “A Bias for Action.” Today, Peters maintains that this is the defining attribute of excellent organisations — “whoever tries the most things wins.”

This trait was quickly adopted by organisations and today is still very evident in the leadership behaviours of leading organisations such as Amazon.

It first came to my attention when Paul Polman publicly called out this specific ‘Standard of Leadership (Unilever have 5 behaviours it expects from every employee) during an Investor Seminar at the end of 2013. Unilever had developed a business strategy called ‘the Compass’ in 2009 which defines four non-negotiable commitments within the business that it believes will help it achieve its purpose and vision: winning with brands and innovation; winning in the market place; winning through continuous improvement; and winning with people. As part of ‘winning with people’, Unilever expects 5 standards of leadership, including a bias for action:

“This is action driven leadership. It’s a sense of urgency in decision making. It’s thoughtful action, intelligent risk-taking.”

What surprised me was that Unilever was going public with the need to strengthen this particular behaviour:

They were internally and externally underlining that this behaviour is more than just lip-service. At the time, the company rated managers using its Leadership Differentiation Tool — all managers are plotted on 2 axes, the WHAT-axis (whether you reach your work plan goals) and the HOW-axis (whether you reach your goals by demonstrating SOL behaviour). So bias for action was important for individuals and the company.

Bias for action since 2015

Announcing their First Half 2016 results, Polman spoke about the need to continue to focus on internal ways of working as part of the next stage in its organisational transformation, to drive agility and cost discipline against the backdrop of slower global growth and consumer demand. Key focuses are now net revenue management, zero based budgeting and ‘Connected 4 Growth’ (stronger global networks, more locally empowered; better technology, infrastructure & platforms).

Unilever is pushing for faster scaling and roll out (more global) and dialling up consumer relevance, speed, agility, and flexibility (more local). Already they are seeing up to 30% reduction in roll-out time for global launches.

How has ‘winning with people’ evolved? In the face of increased external complexity, there is now a drive to simplify internal ways of working in order to be more responsive as well as to build a more inclusive culture “where all men and women feel inspired to deliver to the best of their potential”:

In 2015 Unilever looked at addressing organisational design principles as enablers to deliver a leaner structure that is organised in the most efficient and effective way, driving speed and agility. Project Half for Growth has delivered around €500 million of annualised cost savings.

Winning Together is Unilever’s global campaign to help free its people from complexity and bureaucracy so they can innovate, make swift and bold decisions, look for opportunities and take intelligent risks. In other words, to increase ‘bias for action’. ‘Time Saving Ideas’ has help employees make simple, practical changes to daily activities to free up time, effort and resource and the next phased will see a framework that simplifies how Unilever communicates with their employees:

Don’t just talk about it, be about it

Ryan Holiday tells us how parents and teachers have focused on building up everyone’s self-esteem and how we look to public figures to inspire, encourage and assure us that we can do whatever we set our minds to. When we look at these figures, we risk being over focused on copying the ‘being’ component.

In a world where you risk measuring your success by looking at your number of followers, the number of likes you generate, we are being pulled towards the ‘being’ = recognition, what will guarantee a good performance rating, a promotion, rather than doing what is sometimes the fundamentally right thing to do. We risk spending too much time talking and talking depletes us:

“Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress […] After spending so much time thinking, explaining, and talking about a task, we start to feel that we’ve gotten closer to achieving it. Or worse, when things get tough, we feel we can toss the whole project aside because we’ve given it our best try, although of course we haven’t.”
Ryan Holiday

As human beings, we are prone to procrastinate and deliberate over the cost/benefit. Yet as every book on innovation will tell you, risk has to be embraced with no guarantee of certainty in order to create something truly meaningful. We’re often more interested in talking about what we’re interested in doing, rather than doing it. We are superior planners and inferior do-ers. Instead we need to say little but do much.

Ryan tells us that “though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek”. More practice, more improving, more working, quicker decisions and commitment to action, less talking. That’s why ‘bias for action’ hits the mark — its about doing not being.

Elvis sang it, Tom Peters learnt it, Nike say it, successful companies live it.

So let’s go.

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