The risk of inaction may be one of the least obvious risks of doing business. Businesses may fail if we make the wrong decisions. They may run out of funds if we don’t spend wisely. We also understand the threat of competition. As a result, we plan, set goals and strategize to minimize these risks. Too often though, we do not fully grasp the magnitude of the risk of inaction.
Why is inaction so common?
There are many reasons why we are afraid to take action. The fear of making the wrong decision is prevalent in professional settings. The high stakes of failure often camouflage the disaster inaction can cause. Let’s look at a few reasons why we hesitate to make decisive changes.
Playing it safe
As small businesses with limited resources, we know we have to be careful with our decisions. We may not get a second chance. Therefore, we are prudent and calculated in our decision making process by default. That is not a bad thing. It is actually quite responsible but becomes a problem when the decision making process is too slow and uncompromising. We are not only confronted by challenges, but also presented with opportunities. As such, we have to be ready to adapt in response to these opportunities rather than just avoid pitfalls on autopilot.
We already know that we need to resist the the urge to procrastinate. It steals our focus and breaks our concentration. Recovery from this is time consuming. Procrastination also encourages inaction. The bigger the challenge, the stronger the urge to procrastinate. Unfortunately, wasting time can increase our chances of failure. It is time taken away from problem solving. When we are risking so much that is the last thing we need.
There are times that we want to respond quickly to situations but cannot. Our procedures and systems do not allow it. This could be red tape such as various levels of approval needed. It could be a paper system that can’t keep up with the digital world. Bureaucracy can slow things down and frustrate everyone involved. Our natural instinct to avoid frustration then kicks in. Suddenly, inaction is the preferred alternative.
Overcoming the penchant for inaction
So how do we know when we are too conservative with our decision making? There are many symptoms we can look out for but the main one is stagnation. A lack of progress, a lack of new ideas and falling behind competitors are all red flags. Do our tasks take longer to complete than the average industry time for similar tasks? If they do, without providing any added value to our customers, we have a problem. We cannot get so comfortable with our disposition that we ignore the need for change.
Fail then win
Most competitive people do not like to lose. It is a blow to the ego and an unpleasant experience. We worry about how we will be judged. Nevertheless, inaction is not a solution to failure. By doing nothing we trade the risk of failure for the risk of being left behind. Progress and improvement stem from learning from both failures and successes. Some would argue that failures teach the more enduring lessons. Instead of focusing on avoiding risks to prevent failure we should try not to fail in vain.
Failure is only a bad thing if we do not learn from the experience. The lessons we learn from failures can actually propel us to success. They teach us the consequences of our mistakes so we can maker better decisions. Inaction, on the other hand, can rob us of these invaluable lessons.
Taking meaningful action allows us to adapt to changing situations. Sometimes we have to make many tweaks before we get it right. This is the opposite of inaction. Actively pursuing solutions helps with not only solving current problems, but also anticipating future ones. Research is an ideal example of a proactive approach that minimizes the risk of failure. The more we know about a problem, the better equipped we are to deal with it. Learning from the failures of others can help us to avoid similar pitfalls.
Change a negative culture
Inaction is sometimes inadvertently encouraged by poorly designed work systems. As mentioned before, excessively bureaucratic systems can stifle productivity. We usually just adjust to the system and environment in which we work even if that system is ineffective. The problem is magnified when inaction is either not identified or rewarded. Imagine an employee who is afraid to suggest a change because of a fear of victimization or retaliation. Now imagine another employee who plays it safe despite reservations in order to secure a promotion. What if we could change that?
Culture can be difficult to change. It is the status quo and many people may resist change. Despite this, not trying to improve a faulty system is equivalent to inaction. We have to sell the benefits of a change while preserving the identity and values of the business. To do this we must know the attitudes to the current system and work on eliminating pain points. It may not be easy but many times it is necessary to stay competitive. Trainings, workshops and presentations can all be used to show why change is needed and what it will achieve. We do not have to please everyone. We do need to win the support of stakeholders. Any proposed change should be well thought out and add enough value to convince that it is worth making.
When faced with the decision of doing something difficult or not doing anything at all it is tempting to choose the latter. The consequences of our inaction are not always obvious. Rest assured that they are real though. It could be a missed opportunity that we find out about when it’s too late. Worse, it could be a missed opportunity that we remain oblivious to. When we consider our choices we must consider the impact of doing nothing. We may even encounter ethical dilemmas where inaction is just as risky as doing the “wrong” thing.