By Nina Khachiyan
Strategic Inaction: In Praise of Doing Less
“Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves.”Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Call me a phlegmatic neophobe. (Actually, don’t.) Where others may dive right in, hit the ground running, or perch precipitously on the bleeding edge, you’ll find me keeping cool and dry on the sidelines. From touchpoints to toolchains to tech – when it comes to solving business problems, it’s often hard to know where to begin, thanks to the rapidly increasing complexity of it all. And while common wisdom privileges a fail fast, fail early mentality, I’m here to propose an alternative that has less to do with “fast” and “early,” and more to do with strategically sitting back.
As someone who likes to flirt with career suicide (see my HR jar), I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit that despite working in tech for over a decade, I’m a big bad laggard. You won’t find me whispering sweet nothings to Siri, motorized-longboarding to Chatbot meetups, or even updating my OS unless I’m nagged about it a few times first.
There’s a logic to my inaction, and it has something to do with the Lindy Effect. The concept most notably appears in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Taleb, a trader-and-risk-analyst-cum-essayist, generalizes that the life-span of technologies can be roughly predicted by their existing age. Newer technologies (VR, tablets, chatbots) are more fragile and have shorter life expectancies than older ones (leather shoes, wheels, books). By this logic, we can comfortably predict that most of the stuff touted as the hottest new tech is destined for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – physically, metaphorically, or both. It’s just a matter of when.
For organizations and the individuals that comprise them, it also follows that while staying informed of trends is necessary and helpful, not investing too deeply, too quickly is not necessarily hurtful. In fact, being strategically impassive – that is, saving yourself the trouble of reacting to things until they’ve been “time-tested” or proven their staying power – has its upsides. To quote Frank Chimero: “In one way, it is easier to be inexperienced: you don’t have to learn what is no longer relevant.” When it comes to technical infrastructures, you don’t have to disassemble what’s no longer relevant either.
Beyond the short-term upside of conserving energy (and capital), waiting before acting has longer-term benefits. It’s a topic Peter Thiel, of PayPal-Palantir fame, tackles in another good read called Zero to One. He believes that companies that forfeit initial mindshare – and the attendant downsides of first-hand exposure to volatility and risk – in favor of watching and learning from others’ mistakes can set themselves up to capitalize on what he calls a “Last Mover Advantage.” The gist is this: Make the last big development in a specific market, monopolize mindshare, reap outsize upside. (This is precisely what Google did with their search engine.)
But it’s not just techies and tech companies that stand to benefit from keeping themselves on ice. At a work session with a Fortune 50 big-box retailer just last week, I was heartened to hear a senior leader loudly dismiss the idea that they should be “ashamed of being a follower and not a leader.” From her perspective, her company’s competitive edge lay in staying laser-focused on an enduring promise (which has more to do with serving people than the shiniest new tech), while allowing others to pioneer solutions to complex operational, supply chain, technology and culture challenges and clear a path forward.
After all, in a crowded business landscape, differentiation is predicated on being disproportionately good at something. (Thiel offers 10x as a rule-of-thumb multiplier for just how much better you have to be than your closest substitute on some important dimension to count as disproportionately good.) In the endurance sport of business, the principles of motion economy apply: being good is just as much about the stuff you don’t do as the stuff you do do.
And what if motion economy is as much a predictor of performance in business as it is in athletics? This is sort of what Frances X. Frei is getting at in Uncommon Service. Frei, a professor at Harvard Business School (slash short-lived, would-be Uber savior), suggests that in order to strategically outperform on the things that matter most to your customers – that is, to be disproportionately good at some some things – companies must necessarily and deliberately underperform on some others. That means they must not do certain things.
Take the example of Norwegian Airlines. Taking a page out of the Southwest playbook, the European airline began vocally positioning itself as the the first low-cost long-haul carrier back in 2014, promising $69 flights from the U.S. to Europe in the coming years. While competitors have historically relied on in-flight service offerings for differentiation, chairman and CEO Bjorn Kjos took the opposite tack, offering no-frills service in exchange for rock-bottom fares. The most basic tickets don’t include baggage, food or drink, or a seat reservation; entertainment is limited; and blankets and pillows have to be purchased for all fare classes. To borrow Frei’s parlance, the secret to Norwegian’s continued success – today, it’s the third-largest low-cost carrier in Europe, worth just shy of a billion dollars – comes down to CEO and chairman Bjorn Kjos’ commitment to underperforming on the things budget travelers don’t care about (amenities), in order to outperform on the things they do (price).
The bottom line? Forfeiting activity on some fronts in order to consistently invest in others promises greater opportunities for differentiation and competitive advantage over time.
Nowhere is strategic inaction, or at least strategic ignorance, more important than in the world of data. To quote Taleb once again: “[people often] think that intelligence is about noticing things are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns).” In Fooled by Randomness, a book entirely devoted to big errors in the ways we interpret big data, Taleb advises against regularly reading the news as a way to adjust for the cognitive illusion that the more information we consume, the more knowledge we absorb – and our tendency to overreact to fragments of information.
If you can handle an exercise analogy from someone whose whole premise is sitting it out, here’s an electrical engineering analogy from someone who also routinely trips the circuit breaker.
There’s a concept called Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR), which can be used to illustrate the types of mistakes we’re prone to make when we expose ourselves to too much information. Signal here is the valuable stuff; noise the proverbial chaff. The larger the measure, the more the desired signal “stands out” in comparison to the noise. The problem is, the ratio of Signal-to-Noise changes based on the frequency of sampling. Anyone who checks their stocks or cryptos knows this all too well. Your Ethereum might be down $24 this hour, but up $650 this year. Your hourly view is not wrong, but it’s a distortion of a larger reality.
Because we’re both flooded with data and wired to hunt for signals, our habits of getting information actually run counter to our capacity to make sense of it. Exposing ourselves to more stuff – whether numerical or trend data, or just the headlines in the paper – more frequently can actually undermine understanding rather than help it (as anyone who’s ever spent a lunch break on Twitter can attest). The trick, according to Taleb, is to engage less frequently so we can better catch “very large changes in data or conditions, never small ones” – operating on the faith the “significant signals have a way to reach [us].”
So what does this all mean for you and me? Outside of being a really lofty way to rationalize procrastinating to your manager (give it a try and report back), a healthy dose of strategic inaction can actually make us better team members and client partners.
Allow me to wax metaphysic for a moment.
By design, agency life privileges activity—effort, outputs, hours, busyness, “utilization.” At its extremes, this can create a production mentality which invites insecurity and panic in the absence of constant (and apparent) forward motion, scatters our energies, and penalizes both efficiency and Invisible Acts of Thinking. We routinely treat creative labor the way we treat manual labor: standard set of inputs in, standard set of outcomes out. But the math doesn’t work out, and we all know it.
Creativity is irrational, nonlinear, alchemical. It requires a state of natural focus or “flow.”
As Timothy Galloway writes in the cult classic, The Inner Game of Tennis:
“[It] is not achieved by staring hard at something. It is not trying to force focus, nor does it mean thinking hard about something. Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested. When this occurs, the mind is drawn irresistibly toward the object (or subject) of interest. It is effortless and relaxed, not tense and overly controlled.”
Think about the last time you kicked off a project. Did everybody scatter in a semi-panic? Did you jump right in and begin to decode a vast trove of documents? Have you ever found yourself more confused the more you learned? Have you ever abstained from just asking the client, opting instead to MacGyver your way to the answers you needed? Or, have you tried to predict what they were going to say when you did? Has your perception of “The Ask” ever done an about-face two weeks later? And what about all the stuff you think you need to do to grow your career? The classes you want to take. The new tools you want to learn. All the books you want to read, but haven’t.
The alternative doesn’t mean succumbing to inertia or opting out of the Sisyphean slog. (Spoiler alert: you’ll still have to fill out your timesheet.) It just means becoming more comfortable doing less. Less forcing, less striving, less task-completing, over-engineering and hamster-wheeling. By shifting the burden to things to prove their need to be done, we create space and buy time for the “significant signals” to reach us. We convert the unknown, the unplanned, and the unmanaged from headwinds to tailwinds. The payoff? A more natural, more intentional state of momentum.
All you gotta do is, well – don’t.
Reads in this piece
- The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Zero to One – Peter Thiel
- Uncommon Service – Frances Frei
- The Inner Game of Tennis – Timothy Galloway
Nina Khachiyan | Associate Director of Experience Architecture
Nina’s career has spanned a variety of contexts – she’s been at agencies, start-ups and in-house at brands. At VSA, she’s led experience design and strategy for clients including IBM, Thomson Reuters, Slack and Google. She helps define product visions, align internal and external stakeholders, and lead cross-functional teams to deliver smart, insight-driven solutions. In her spare time, she can be found not doing stuff. Contact Nina at firstname.lastname@example.org.