The Muselet #48: The Subtle Art Of…

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal

When I first moved into a management position, I struggled. I felt everybody was now bringing their problems to me, and I had to solve them. I was a rookie as you can tell, because I still used the term “problem” instead of “challenge.” Those were the days.

Ping! A question. Ping! Another. I barely got to do any of my own work anymore. However, I kept telling myself: managers are supposed to remove obstacles for their team, and I was at least doing that, right?

In a sense, I felt important because clearly people relied on me. I also realized it wasn’t sustainable. What would happen if I would go on a lunch break, got sick, or worse… needed a vacation? Would the world grind to a halt?

I had a personal coach at the time, and she gave me something to try:

When people ask you something: don’t respond immediately. Wait to see what happens.

Intentionally delay your responses.

This was actually pretty doable. I worked remotely at the time, so all such requests came in asynchronously via chat. I could simply not respond for some time.

This is what happened:

“Hey Zef, where do I find this and that information?”

No action from my side. No response.

Ten minutes later: “Never mind. Found it!”

As I applied this more consistently, the number of requests being sent my way dropped significantly. The reason was obvious. Before, I was a useful resource for looking up information, or a quick way to get something done. However, with the added “latency,” it became much more efficient to rely on themselves to resolve problems.

For me, this was a clear win. But more importantly, it was a big boon for my team as they learned to rely more on themselves than me. While trying to be helpful, supportive and “remove blockers” I had become a bottleneck myself.

Maybe there is something to this idea of not taking action that can be more widely applied?


“The subtle art of not doing sh*t” would make for a good book title. 

Many companies I’ve worked for share the company value, or leadership behavior, of “bias for action.”

Action bias is the tendency, given the choice of acting versus not acting, to pick the former: to act.

I understand the value of this idea, but let’s challenge applying it across the board. Especially when considering taking interventionist action in the context of complex systems like organizations. Of course, I’m not talking about things like moving a desk, fixing a bug, or developing a feature. I’m talking about making more deep, structural changes, like changing roles and responsibilities, or introducing some new rule, or incentive plan — usually responding to somebody bringing a problem — sorry, a challenge — to your attention.

In complex systems, the result of such actions is often extremely hard to predict. We may have great intentions in acting, but that doesn’t mean they will have the desired results.

One of the things you will find when learning about macroeconomics is that there’s a massive discrepancy between the intention of economic measures and their actual effects. In fact, in a shockingly high number of situations it seems that not intervening in the economy is a way better strategy than introducing some new law, or introducing some new incentive attempting to resolve some problem. Complex systems like the economy tend to self-heal, and taking (interventionist) action often tends to make things worserather than better. Usually in surprising ways.

While your company may not be as complex as the world economy, let’s not be simplistic about this. In “No More Rewards” we’ve seen we’ve been applying rewards for decades without really fully understanding their impact. Are you sure you know what’s going to happen when you take the action you’re planning? The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. 

In many ways, organizations are like living beings. Living beings tend to evolve by themselves, without intervention. We talk about “self organizing teams” all the time. You know what is a great way to support teams on their journey to become self-organizing?

That’s right.

Not doing sh*t.

No more action.

How about this instead: a bias for inaction?

Somebody comes to you with a problem. You listen. You nod. And you say: “I hear you. That is indeed a problem.”

And then. You do nothing.

What will likely happen, similar to my delayed response strategy, is that people will figure out you’re not the quick fixer you once were. A shame because that was rather convenient. Perhaps they should explore ways of addressing issues themselves?

Then, see if the problem keeps coming back to you. I generally apply a threshold of three times as a strong indicator that indeed some actual action is required. If the issue resurfaces less often than that, perhaps it wasn’t worth any actionŻ. Let’s consider it a prioritization mechanism.

Of course, we shouldn’t take this to the extreme. Our role is to manage the system, and there are definitely many cases where that actually requires… you know, doing things. 

We love to show that we care and want to help: “Of course! I’ll get on that right away!”

However, should that always be the default?