Doctors, data and the value of inaction


Like many writers, I fancy myself a wordsmith. Few adages make me smile as much as: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” And I'm not the only one fond of that play on words.

The New York Times describes the above quote as "one of those phrases that attending physicians will spout off to their medical students while on rounds, trying to sound both sagacious and clever at the same time. It sometimes grates, but it does make a valid point, because so much of medicine is about 'doing something.'"

So true, but doctors certainly aren't the only ones who feel a great deal of pressure to act sans perfect information. Most data management professionals have seen this potentially pernicious mind-set at work. For my part, one of my consulting endeavors in particular suffered tremendously from systematically putting the cart before the horse. An equally demanding and naive project manager always believed that doing something (anything, really) was always better than doing nothing. Call it the illusion of movement.

And she was spectacularly wrong.

OODA Loops

As any doctor will tell you, the results of acting too soon can be downright disastrous (read: fatal). While no lives are lost on most consulting and information management projects, there are some major parallels. In particular, acting before looking at data and/or knowing the results of testing can do much more harm than good.

Frank Partnoy's new book Wait examines the benefits of waiting. Partnoy writes about OODA loops developed by the military but now used in other walks of life. (OODA stands for observe, orient, decide and act.) Note the important middle steps of the OODA loop (orient and decide). In other words, it's not not an OA loop. Not orienting and deciding can be cataclysmic, especially in the military.

Simon Says

While I'm the last person on the planet to advocate superfluous bureaucracy and inertia, let's be reasonable here. Doing something is not always better than doing nothing. Waiting for the data at key points isn't only advisable, it's imperative.


What say you?


About Author

Phil Simon

Author, Speaker, and Professor

Phil Simon is a keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of eight management books, most recently Analytics: The Agile Way. His ninth will be Slack For Dummies (April, 2020, Wiley) He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, analytics, and technology. His contributions have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, The New York Times, and many other sites. He teaches information systems and analytics at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business.

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