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Wednesday, March 15, 2020

Action...or Reaction?

What happens when you have to do something and don't have enough time to think properly? You react. You rely on instant, rule of thumb responses. Mostly, you do what you've done many times before. It's second nature by now. It doesn't need thought or even much attention.

Organizations complain when managers fail to show initiative or "think outside the box," but it's usually their own fault. Instead of allowing the time it takes to work out the steps needed to reach a sound decision (research, analysis and evaluation), organizations expect harassed managers to get it right without more than a cursory glance. Under such pressure, what other course is possible but to react—to grab at the first, obvious answer and hope it works?

Business has always valued pragmatism. Mere ideas rarely make much profit. It takes sound implementation to do that. But we seem to be slipping into a business mindset that equates thinking with wasting time. Books like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking attempt to create a belief that instant responses are somehow better than more considered ones. I'm afraid I think this is nonsense. Intuition can—and often does—appear to produce insights out of thin air. But careful consideration usually shows that the "sudden insight" is the product of months, even years, of thought, analysis and experience. The master of a craft makes it look effortless—but only because he or she has put in so much effort and practice before.

Many people have an automatic suspicion of those whom they label "intellectuals" or "egg-heads." It's not without some justification. There are people about who use their knowledge primarily to put others down and try to make themselves look important. But to replace the importance of rational thought with instant, usually emotional reactions is like expecting everyone to be ugly and badly dressed because a few people use their beauty and elegance in unpleasant ways.

Slow Leadership is always thoughtful. Reaching the right decisions may, after long, long years of effort, look quick and easy to outsiders, but that's a false impression. It always requires making sure you understand the situation correctly, have time to look for patterns and causes, and consider all the most appropriate options carefully, before reaching a decision. Reactions allow only for a single option. Sound actions always need to be choices from the best of what's available.

Hurried choices rely on mythology: the belief that some things are "meant to be" and can't go wrong, however superficially people think before jumping in. Like the idea of true love at first sight, they make a great story, but rarely work out that way in reality. Becoming a master of your business is a lifelong pursuit, as George Leonard explains so well in his book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. He writes:
The quick-fix, antimastery mentality touches almost everything in our lives. Look at modern medicine and pharmacology. "Fast, temporary relief" is the battle cry. Symptoms receive immediate attention: underlying causes remain in the shadows. More and more research studies show that most illnesses are caused by environmental factors or way of life. The typical twelve-minute office visit doesn't give the doctor time to get to know the patient's face, much less his or her way of life. It does give time for writing a prescription.
Next time you face a decision, will you act…or simply react? Will you consider the alternatives fully…or grab some quick-fix solution you hope will make the problem go away—until it comes back? It's your choice. And if you believe you can get it right on the basis of gut-feel alone, good luck.


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