When More Talk is More Action


‘Less Talk More Action’ is a common refrain in management. The best next step may involve more talk and more action.

A bias to action in management is a good way to overcome the inertia of bureaucracy. It helps foster change by requiring that we find ways to move forward. Like all good things a preference for action can be overdone. The traditional engineering mindset of management can come to view talk as a wasteful distraction. In management conversations in all kinds of organisation it is not uncommon to hear,

“This talk is too complicated and going on too long. Let’s do this”

In complicated and complex scenarios that involve systemic issues like culture, the best next step at times may involve more talk and more action. Realising the potential of people as a leader can often mean having to step back from one’s own action orientation to discuss the way forward with others, to gather inputs and to allow others to shape the path through collaboration. We need to recognise in leading the network complexity of the new ways of work that action alone may not be the wisest path.

The Time for Action

The Cynefin framework offers us a useful model to see where we need to demonstrate a bias for action over talk.  If the situation falls in the Simple domain, where cause and effect is clear, then action is straightforward once the position is known. We should have a strong bias for More Action and Less Talk. 

If the situation is truly in a Chaotic domain, where cause and effect are unrelated, then action offers the best chance to move somewhere else. talk may add some value after we act to help understand the environment is chaotic.  However it is action first that will get us out.

Much of our work in organisations is spent in the Complicated or Complex domains of the Cynefin model where launching straight into Action may not be all that is required.

When The Action includes Talk – Sense Making

Each domain of the model requires decision makers to make sense of what is going on in the environment. That sense making process may need discussion with other participants, particularly in the complicated and complex domains where patterns of cause and effect are unclear. For example discovery and analysis are both tasks that need not be purely data-driven exercises. People may need to debate the situation and the work collaboratively to determine the relationships in place. Action have a collaborative element too, requiring discussion as the action progresses to implementation.

Making collective sense of an environment where cause and effect is not straightforward is essential to winning people’s engagement in action and especially action that creates change. The more complex the environment  the more important this engagement will be. Without an ability to make sense of the environment and the strategy to be put into place, people will be at best disengaged and at worst actively oppose the approach.

When Action and Talk Go Together – Working Out Loud

In a Complex domain, the recommended course of action is to probe. A probe is an action done with an intent to learn. In other words, it is an experiment.

To maximises the value of the learning and the effectiveness of the experiment, we often need to communicate that experimental intent. A strategy of probing, sensing and responding can appear confusing to others without a declared intent. Leaders who are trying to take their team on a series of experiments need to be clear on the nature and learning goals of the experiments.

Leverage others to design the experiment and keep you true to your goal of learning. Too many experiments get converted into actions by the management mindset of showing progress at any cost. Think of all the pilots that slid into full-scale launch because nobody wanted to declare them a failure. Working out loud can also help with accountability and also leverage the contributions and learnings of others to develop the collective sense of a complex domain.

Why Talk Matters – Realising Potential in the Future of Work

As Harold Jarche explains in his description of the Cynefin model for the future of work, a key role for leadership in the changing workplace is to help employees use capacity that is released.  That capacity can be used to transition employees from the domains most susceptible to automation, the simple and complicated, to working in those where human contributions are most valuable.

“Less talk, more action” is what we expect of machines. As we see our world of work move into networks and more complex domains, leaders must remember the value and human potential in communication. 

Perhaps we should choose to lead with “More Action and More Talk”.

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