I had an epiphany while doing my exercise this morning; triggered by an incident. One of the towels that was left to dry in our balcony (at the 2nd floor level) had fallen off due to heavy winds last night. In my first two laps, I did not see the towel; but in my 3rd lap I saw the towel and recognized it – someone had picked it up nicely and let it hang on one of the water pipes – so it was not getting any dirtier or blown around in the wind or anything like that. However, as soon as I knew it was my towel, I had this great urge to act immediately – pick it up and then take it upstairs to the room… That’s when I had the epiphany…
There are two things for us to be successful (in general, I'd believe):
- To be able to ACT IN AN UNKNOWN situation (being comfortable with not knowing what the immediate action is, but not getting stunned to stillness).
- To be able to NOT ACT IN A KNOWN situation (being restrained enough not to jump into action, but act with deliberation).
#1 above is fairly obvious. Most of the inventors come from exploring the unknown and having a curiosity of where no one has gone before (including Captain Kirk J). This is about discovering possibilities.
However, refrain from acting in a known situation was something I had not thought about at all, thus far. That was not my strength. Which is why sometimes I would miss out articulating the systemic view; and get to urgent things before important things. My point here is NOT that, we should NOT be action oriented; but the point is: If acting a little late is ok and has no impact, why not act later than sooner? Maybe newer information would present itself to give additional clarity or a better solution; specifically if its not a black and white situation and the solution is in the large grey zones between those boundaries.
When we are operating in a much limited circle of 'awareness', our action will be driven by what we know. Hence those and solutions resulting from those actions can end up being sub-optimal; since we do not know what we do not. Once we decide to go beyond the charming lure of the known, we start to look beyond the “obvious” and not allow us to be short-changed by what we know. Then, this self-awareness that there might be possibilities other than the known and choosing deliberately not to act, becomes our differentiator. I think this is key in a Strategy part of the cycle (of Strategy and Execution); when we are looking for a systemic and a holistic solution – striving to continuously raise the bar.
I’ve an examples to quote on the above, using my favorite metaphor repository – cricket J. Sanjay Manjrekar who is a good friend of Sachin Tendulkar (and hence you may want to discount some of what he gushes about Sachin), said that one of Sachin’s greatness lies from the fact that he can wait on the ball till the last moment and play it – and legend says that Sachin has a 6 ways of playing a ball and score runs off it where as lesser mortals would be happy defending it. Since Sachin picks the length and line early, it is easy for him to make a decision about what he needs to do with the ball; but he just does not act immediately, he plays it at late as possible and as differently he wants to; that’s where his genius about cricketing ability comes about. To me, Sachin, by choosing not to act earlier than absolutely necessary and in an obvious manner is creating and inventing possibilities.
This leads to the next stage then. The point that we could be creating/inventing possibilities would imply that we have created a situation that is perhaps widely unknown and unsolved. However, the need to make progress in resolution, still remains. Sometimes, in that situation, we realize that we need to develop new skills, functions and knowledge; and that puts us in a situation of unknown. This is the #1 above; we seek and act (like doing, experiencing, learning, reading etc) to get more clarity on the unknown and hence put us on the path of solution that is directionally valid. Here our awareness of our own limitations and choosing to act becomes a differentiator - being comfortable to act in an uncertain situation is, to me, key to the execution part of the cycle.
I do think the combination of the two above is the one that continuously raises the bar, expands the bounds of knowledge and pushes entity (either the person or the organization) towards excellence in creating, achieving and sustaining value.
I think the Shakespearean question is really not “To Act or not to act”; it is “To act AND not to act”.