Why "Bias For Action" is a critical trait

 | #Startup#Culture

This post is a part of a series about startup culture and how to define for long-term success and scale of a company. In this first post, I want to talk about the most important cultural trait according to me — Bias For Action.

I have interviewed nearly 300 candidates for their cultural fitment in 2021 alone,and one of the key skills I look for is Bias for Action.


It is defined as follows:

Bias For Action is a type of cognitive bias that’s beneficial for personal and professional growth. It refers to the tendency of favoring action over inaction. There are times when we feel compelled to act but aren’t certain about the outcome, bias for action prompts us to respond to situations and take action without proper rationale.

Bias for Action is self-evident when we take initiative or go out of our way to solve a customer’s problem. It is the willingness to act — whether it is scheduling a meeting with a stakeholder to resolve an issue or follow up with a team that hasn’t responded yet. It is the action to investigate and act upon the issue or metrics without someone asking you.

It is defined by the mindset of better to apologize for a failure than to wait for approval. It is about not being discouraged by minor setbacks and bouncing back harder to meet the desired goals.

It is the skill to think critically and make decisions with calculated risks based on limited information but still drive meaningful impact.

Why it is important

Activity that was executed swiftly but failed will cause less harm than no activity. A couple of reasons why Bias for action is important:

  1. Prevents overthinking: Analysis Paralysis is one of the major reasons for failures in a startup project. With limited time and capital, startups are expected to win over the established players thanks to their agility and sheer execution speed.
  2. Allows you to make mistakes faster: Instead of trying to come up with a perfect design which the users love, you can reach that through experiments and iterations. Here I am not talking about the fake it till you build it ethos that some embody, but to build iteratively while paying keen attention to user feedback along the way.

Bias for Action is one of the defining leadership principles at Amazon. During my short tenure there, I found it being used in a different context wherein it was being balanced with their other leadership principles. I will go into more detail on that journey in another post about the unique culture (peculiar?) of Amazon and how it’s guided by its leadership principles.

“I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not trying” - Jeff Bezos

Why it’s more critical in a startup

Not trying enough ideas in a given time is a reason why most startups fail. When trying to create a market differentiation with different product offerings or GTM, your ability to explore more is an advantage.

When the solution is not known, the ability to try multiple approaches in a shorter time to find one solution that works is a strategic advantage.

For instance, a team that’s in search of a perfect email content or landing page that leads to more conversions is one that tests three designs a week over one that only iterates two designs a week. Speed solves lots of inefficiency in the planning or research phase.

Even if that approach fails, we get to learn from it, which gives us an extra data point to make that decision that would not exist if no action was taken. Furthermore, the experience helps in making an informed decision next time. As time progresses, you get better at making the right decisions the first time around, improving your Bias for Action.

What is wisdom if not the recycling of neural connections created due to experience when new scenarios are encountered.

By default, the amount of information available in a startup is less due to limited product management bandwidth. So the ability to act with limited information is favored and rewarded. One can argue that good analysis or planning will help here, but thanks to our cognitive bias, what we feel may work might not be the optimal solution for our customers. This explains the emergence of A/B testing tools in the last decade.

How can it be developed?

Decision-making is always difficult, and to make it worse, we are wired biologically to stay safe. This inherently leads to fear and anxiety when making a decision that might go wrong. So Bias for Action needs to be coupled with critical thinking to add value. To develop it:

  • Make smaller informed decisions whenever possible.
  • Prioritize: One of the main reasons for not taking action is getting distracted by other things. In a start-up, you always have a lot going around.
  • Personally, be open to uncomfortable scenarios and find solutions to problems.

For example, during design discussions, always look out for ways to validate the idea through small experiments that gives more concrete data point and confidence on the design.

“The best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing.” – Theodore Roosevelt

How can you evaluate it?

When trying to evaluate someone for this skill, one must understand the flavor varies between a leadership role and execution role.

As a leader, Bias for Action means:

  • Empowering team members.
  • Allowing the team to explore new ideas and setting a culture where failures are acceptable.
  • Timely decisions when all the information required to make one is not available.

For Individual contributors, the same means:

  • Willingness to get into action or assist to solve problems.
  • Asking for help promptly instead of being stuck in analysis paralysis.
  • Follow up and deliver on time.
  • Quickly identify if you need more information before taking action, request those details, and move forward.

These are some of the questions that I usually use to evaluate this skill:

  • Tell me about a time when you fixed an issue or bug though no one asked you to fix it.
  • Tell me about a time when you missed a deadline and how you dealt with it.
  • Tell me about a time when you took a big risk.

The idea of the question is not only to evaluate whether the candidate shows Bias for Action, but also to make sure they take a balanced approach.

Dangers of excessive Bias for Action

Like any medicine, too much Bias for Action is bad, if not dangerous. When taken to the extreme, it results in too much action with no direction or impact. Everything will be a priority, and we eventially miss out on making any lasting impact.

Less Bias for Action results in no execution, and too much of it results in lots of action without a clear outcome. So it needs to be balanced with critical thinking and setting high standards. To have the right amount of Bias of Action means to have execution preferring incremental progress in the right direction instead of looking at achieving a perfect solution.

Bias for action vs thinking

A person with an obsessive Bias for Action takes action without any input from others, doesn’t stop to assess the risk, or determine whether the action is reversible before moving forward.

So the obvious question is this: when is it the right time to show Bias for Action? If a decision is reversible, then expect to act quickly as the opportunity cost of waiting for more information exceeds the cost of reverting the change due to failure.

If the decision can not be reversed, then it is better to think deeper, analyze and make the decision.

Speed without direction might not result in any movement.

Another hurdle for someone with an excessive Bias for Action when not balanced is the impact in their growth to be a leader where you need to balance between thinking and action. So the natural progression is to learn how to decide with less information and learn from your past experiences to hone that skill continuously.

For leaders, an engineer who has an obsessive Bias for Action can be balanced by pairing with a right mentor to provide the right guidance and perspective.

To summarise:

In my experience, Bias for Action is the most important trait to look for in a team member after ownership. Probably this is not true for job roles requiring specialized knowledge and deep understanding, but definitely true for 80 to 90% of roles that need a generalist. It always feels like magic to work with someone who has a balanced skill, and I would rate them to be 10X engineers.

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