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A Bias Toward Inaction?

improve your productivity Apr 23, 2021

My theme for the week has been the importance of inaction. We humans, especially Americans, are conditioned for a bias towards action. But a growing body of evidence lends credence to the ideas that conscious observation is better than intervention, and the best solution to a problem often comes from taking something away, not adding something more.

I'll start with the most recent episode of the excellent podcast, Cautionary Tales from Tim Harford. It covers the concept of Masterly Inactivity: Intentional inaction from a person in authority intended to create an environment for people to figure things out on their own.

Harford, as he is so good at doing, illustrates masterly inactivity through stories involving international diplomacy, helicopter parenting, and British colonialism. But I had my own brush with it in one of my recent consulting engagements (although I couldn't have named the concept before listening to Harford's episode).

The senior attorney at a family law firm I work with had grown frustrated by his team, both for their inconsistent work product and their barely-in-time delivery. His instinct was to intervene more: more instruction, more assignment of tasks, more reviews. But my impression was that his team was already feeling overwhelmed by details. It wasn't so much that they didn't know how to do their jobs, it was more that there were so many little things to keep track of (and so many of those things were communicated to them as "urgent') that they couldn't figure out what was the most important thing for them to be working on at any given moment. So they were trying, and of course failing, to do it all.

So we ran an experiment to see if less direction actually produced better outcomes. Starting on a Monday one week, instead telling the team what assigned tasks and matters they needed to work on, we let them tell us. First we agreed, as a group, on some criteria for what "important" looked like—some way to objectively determine importance instead of going off of anyone's feelings. Then we used that criteria to populate a "weekly hot list" of matters that needed substantial attention this week. The criteria they came up with went like this:

A matter qualifies for the "weekly hot list" when any of the following is true:

  1. There is a court-imposed deadline in the next 2 weeks and there are outstanding tasks to meet the deadline.
  2. We have a required court appearance (hearing or trial) in the next 2 weeks and there are outstanding tasks to prepare for that appearance.
  3. There is an externally-generated deadline (e.g. from opposing counsel) in the next 1 week that requires our response and there are outstanding tasks to make that response.
  4. There is an internally-generated due date in the next 1 week that we have made for ourselves or our client and there are outstanding tasks to meet the due date.

The team then identified, and ranked, matters for the hot list based on the defined criteria. They also identified the specific tasks that needed to happen in order for that matter to no longer be considered "hot."

(And yes, we tracked it all on a kanban board, but you don't necessarily need one to use this weekly hot list method.)

The senior attorney was there to answer questions, and sometimes guide the conversation, but ultimately he wasn't the one deciding what the team would work on that week; the team had to figure it out for themselves. We then ran a series of daily standup meetings every day at 1:00 (which, for those of you who think you need to plan your day first thing in the morning, actually worked quite well for timing). Each member of the team got 90 seconds to tell each other (1) what progress they had made since our last standup, (2) what tasks on priority matters they planned to accomplish before 1:00 tomorrow, and (3) what roadblocks, if any, were in their way.

The hot list was already prioritized, and the tasks were already identified, so team members didn't have to re-engage their brains around what matters they should be working on (although, inevitably, new information later in the week caused them to adjust the hot list slightly). We kept track of who committed to what tasks (again, on the kanban board) so there was accountability partnership throughout the team. And because they knew they were going to have to report their progress every day, they were less enticed to do unplanned work that wasn't associated with a priority matter.

The goal was to have every one of the "hot list" matters come off the list by the end of the week. It didn't happen. But, because they had prioritized the list according to objective criteria, the most important matters did get taken care of. And while we're still in the early stages of the effort, I know from past experience that eventually they will right-size the hot list to get work flowing more smoothly.

Note that they were able to get things working better not because we gave them step-by-step instructions for how to do the work, but because we gave them a relatively simple framework for prioritizing the things they paid attention to. By getting their heads out of the details across numerous cases and allowing themselves to focus on just a few important ones, they were able to do better quality work and deliver it on time.

Which gets me to the other applicable article I read this week, this one from the Washington Post headlined We instinctively add on new features and fixes. Why don’t we subtract instead? I encourage you to read it yourself, but the upshot is that (1) less is more really is the best solution to a lot of problems and (2) our "bias towards action" includes a bias towards addition (and therefore a sub-optimal solution).

The authors' recommendation? Give yourself permission to do nothing but observe, and give your brain the time it needs to see the whole picture. In other words, engage in a little bit of masterly inactivity (although the article doesn't use that term).

I'll dive a little deeper on the "less is more" concept in another blog post, but for now I'll leave you with one of my favorite aphorisms from the world of Agile: Simplicity is the art of maximizing the work not done. This is one of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto, and it is a powerful one.


Want to discuss how adopting Agile methods can improve productivity and teamwork for your legal team? I can help. I love helping lawyers and their teams find ways to work better, so don't hesitate to schedule a free 30 minute discovery call to talk about improving the flow of work in your law practice.

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