Getting to a decision normally includes coming up with loads of ideas in a creative session and choosing a number of options before agreeing on a final way forward. If the decision is important and relates to strategy then this activity could take some time. It’s important to get right. So what is the one option that should be in all your discussions that many managers overlook every time?
What happens if nothing happens?
The one solution that should be mentioned in all your option papers and on your mindmaps is Do Nothing. It’s a valid approach in any situation. You don’t have to take a decision that actively involves changing something. You can decide that the status quo is perfectly acceptable.
Many people forget that this is an option. They are so caught up in the fact that change has to happen that they don’t consider what would happen if they did nothing. If they did investigate, they might find out that the null option of taking no action is far better than ploughing ahead with a project. Of course, that won’t always be the case.
Doing nothing as risk management
Project risk management is one discipline where doing nothing is regularly considered as a viable option. One of the risk response strategies for dealing with uncertainty on projects is to do nothing to mitigate against it. This is called accepting the risk. You are open to the possibility that something might go wrong and you acknowledge that you aren’t going to do anything to actively change that.
This could be the right strategy if the risk is very small. The effort involved in taking action could be more work than sorting it out if the problem did occur. You have to weigh up whether it is really worth investing time and effort in moving forward with a solution when the alternative is to sit tight and carry on as you are.
Don’t ignore the risks
That isn’t to say that doing nothing is going to be right in every situation. And it definitely isn’t a position of ignorance. Leaders who make an active decision not to take action have weighed up all the options. They know what the cost is of moving forward with one solution or another. They have considered all the recommendations and studied the business case for taking a course of action.
Choosing to do nothing is exactly that – a choice. It shouldn’t be your default position, and it most certainly isn’t the right call in the majority of cases. But if you have looked at all the alternatives, mapped out your choices, investigated what would happen in every situation, then you should also cover off the option that involves accepting the situation as it is.
I’ll say it again: doing nothing is not the same as ignoring your problem or failing to research alternatives adequately.
Why you should consider it
The null option – the active choice to do nothing – gives you a benchmark from which to assess the other options. If you know Solution A will cost $500k and Solution B will cost $300k it can help to know that doing nothing will cost $600k. You can put the other options in context. It gives you more data for your decision makers.
It can also show the importance of the decision and create that ‘burning platform’ that change managers talk about (you might also know it as the ‘melting iceberg’ in John Kotter’s change management fable Our Iceberg is Melting). In other words, it can provide the impetus to change. Knowing that doing nothing is going to cost the business twice what Solution B would cost can help you secure the investment to do Solution B, even though business leaders feel that is a lot of money to spend on a project. The null option can be a very powerful part of your decision making and provide lots of useful data for your business case.
You can include what would happen if you did nothing in the business case to act as a control against which to rank and compare the other solutions. Think of it like a feature comparison matrix: list the benefits or costs and then tick which ones you would get if you stayed put and which ones you would see if you moved forward with your recommended actions.
Regardless of how you express the null option on paper in a business case, the important thing to remember is that you should always ask the question: “What about if we didn’t do that? What would happen if we did nothing?” Once you’ve got over the raised eyebrows and incredulous looks, you can move forward with a balanced discussion on the merits of all the options open to you, including staying exactly as you are and taking no action.
From time to time, nothing might be the perfect thing to do.
When have you taken the decision to do nothing, either in a small way such as accepting a project risk or in a large way through your strategic choices? Share your stories in the comments below!
About the author
Elizabeth Harrin is the author and award-winning blogger behind A Girl’s Guide To Project Management. Get her suggestions for being more productive at work on her blog.