A bias for action

In Search of Excellence was one of the biggest selling business books ever. Published in 1982, the book set out to explore the secrets of success of some of the world’s leading companies. Its authors found eight common themes which they argued were responsible for the success of the chosen corporations. Up front was ‘a bias for action’ or simply ‘getting on with it’. Indeed, this theme of doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing is a common characteristic of many of our political leaders. The very act of ‘action’ is seen as a laudable character trait by many. ‘Action is character’, claimed F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Of course, in and of itself, ‘action’ is not necessarily the best move. The actions precipitated by many of our bold leaders quickly come undone leaving unfortunate legacies that we pay for over many generations (consider the Mega Rice Project in Kalimantan). And many of the ‘action’ companies held up in the book In Search of Excellence went on to perform poor or indifferently.

Their very use of the term ‘a bias for action’ is open to question. ‘Bias’ means a tendency towards something however in the economics and psychology literature it describes ‘beliefs that are inconsistent with reality or behaviours that compromise the achievement of objectives’. In other words, bias is not a good basis for effective decision making yet it is ever present.

What happens if we are blind to the biases that do creep into our decisions? It’s a question that has been asked in many areas of human endeavour but not one frequently explored for natural resource management. Sayed Iftekhar and David Pannell set out to rectify this and explain how bias has led to some poor decisions being made about major NRM investments.

Environmental decision science is all about weighing up options and making choices. Sometimes the best option is no action, but this shouldn’t be confused with not making a decision. So, rather than ‘action is character’, maybe we should be suggesting ‘a good decision is better than no decision’.

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