The Power of Inaction
What do three 21st-Century geeks have in common with three 19th-Century politicians?
The three geeks were three bosses. Mine, in fact.
I’ve had numerous bosses over the years. None, fortunately, were bad, so I’ve been luckier than most. Almost everyone has an Evil Boss story to tell.
But three really stand out. Kevin, Mike and Justin.
The three 19th-Century politicians were Prince Klemens von Metternich, Otto von Bismarck, and Lord Salisbury, of Austria, Germany and England, respectively.
What do they have in common?
They were all Masters of Inaction.
Kevin and Mike were lead engineers.
They had their own techie work to do. But they were also responsible for setting my tasks and priorities, and being available to answer any questions I had.
Justin was (and still is) a sales guy and director. He’d give me a contract, tell me where and when to show up, and who to see.
And that’s all they did.
That’s all they had to do.
No hovering over me to see if I was doing it their way.
No micro-management. No demand that I check in every day.
Ego’s parked at the door. No constant chit-chat, no verbal fencing to establish dominance and keep you pegged.
They left me to it. Got out of my way.
I got on with the job. It was just assumed that I was cracking on (which I was), and everything was going to plan, unless they heard from me otherwise.
I might cross paths with Kevin or Mike on the way to get a coffee. Justin might drop by to see me if he was in the office to meet someone else.
But then, just as often, he wouldn’t.
I’d see him across the room, and then find out an hour later, he’d left for the day.
If a significant problem would arise, threatening success, I have no doubt they got involved, to re-set, re-stabilize.
But the interesting thing is . . . . I don't remember any such . . . . problems
There surely must have been some? Or maybe not?
Action and Inaction are both contagious. The more activity there is, the more activity gets generated. And it becomes a nasty spiral. And most of it will be useless or counterproductive.
Inaction, conversely, is not the absence of action.
It’s just the restriction of action to the right moves. And only the right moves. The rest of the time, you are Thinking. Observing. Reflecting.
Not contemplating your next move. Rather, contemplating whether another move is necessary at all. And then, only then, what should that move be?
Defending the Status Quo, until a definitely better Status Quo can be identified. Not because Change is Evil, but because most changes are. Most changes end up being counter-productive.
A lot of government policies end up achieving the opposite of the intended effect. Someone told me recently that Beijing is on its way to having more cars than people. Reason? To combat the terrible air pollution in Beijing, the authorities imposed a policy designed to halve the traffic on the roads. All cars were labelled Even or Odd. On Monday, the Even cars were allowed on the road; Tuesday, the Odd cars, and so on. In this way, they hoped to induce people to work from home half the time.
But the result was, people just bought a second car. Now they have an Even and an Odd car. The traffic and pollution problems are no better, but there’s a whole lot more cars, and I imagine a whole lot more parking difficulties.
Beijing was better off without the action.
The aforementioned 19th-Century politicians . . . .
. . . . had one other thing in common besides being Masters of Inaction.
They hated war.
In fact, that’s why they were Masters of Inaction.
Metternich’s System (his policy of frequent international congresses between major European nations) was motived by his conviction that Countries that talk with each other, are less likely to fight.
Bismarck’s political career was starting as von Metternich’s was ending. He started two wars, but then acted to end them quickly. Once German unification was done, peace in Europe became his objective.
He famously said, Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.
In England, Salisbury was a contemporary of Bismarck’s, and cooperated with him.
He insisted on being his own Foreign Secretary and resisted allying Britain to any European power if another power found it threatening.
All three of these powerful statesmen recognized that violence is the default setting for the human race.
Avoiding it was therefore the Top Imperative.
Violence is Action, and it almost always comes in response to Action.
The right policy, then, is to make Inaction the default.
And tellingly . . . . when any of these three men were at their respective helms . . . .
War in Europe was rare.
So why aren’t you and I Masters of Inaction?
That, Detective, is the right question.
Nobody’s going to pay me for doing nothing, are they? Gee, I guess I’d better do something. ANYTHING. And fast. ANYTHING is better than NOTHING.
Ah, there’s the mistake. ANYTHING isn’t better than NOTHING.
Well, what is better than NOTHING, then?
The RIGHT thing.
And the problem is, the RIGHT thing rarely jumps out from behind a bush and announces itself to us just when we need it.
You have to figure it out. You have to THINK.
And then, quite probably, you have to start with SOMETHING.
SOMETHING is an ANYTHING, which you quickly stop when you realize it’s the WRONG thing or not as good as a SLIGHTLY BETTER thing. (Key word there: stop. You’re replacing, not adding. This is split-testing your way through life.)
And then, you replace the SLIGHTLY BETTER thing with an EVEN BETTER thing. And again, and again, until you reach the BEST or the RIGHT thing.
THINKING, all the time.
Richard Koch has a great line: ACTION drives out THOUGHT.
I don’t think this Need to Think is the only reason we aren’t Masters of Inaction.
Quite often, it’s just insecurity.
We refuse to trust our own judgement.
We don’t trust the people around us either.
It’s a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum world, doncha know? If I keep myself busy with ANYTHING, and and I keep YOU busy with it too, the RIGHT thing must be in there somewhere, surely?
Don’t count on it.
And why don’t we have more Masters of Inaction in business, or in politics?
In the modern democratic world . . . .
It’s pretty hard to win over an electorate with a policy of Doing Little or Nothing.
People vote for the candidate who’s going to DO something, who will Fix My Problems, and get the world revolving around me for a change.
Politicians who say, Gee I’m sorry you’re in a mess, terrible shame and all that, but it's a mistake to do what you think will fix it . . . . no matter how sound the reasoning behind it . . . . don't usually get votes.
But they should.
The government I SAY I WANT is not usually the one I actually NEED.
So when election time next rolls around, don’t vote for the candidate you hate least. Don’t vote for the one who’s going to set your world to rights.