Acts of Omission and Sins of Commission

For the life of mine, I am just not able to recollect where I came across this phrase — “Acts of Commission and Sins of Omission” (and this is happening a lot, of late — perhaps a “kid-in-a-candy-store” syndrome with so much learning happening).

We celebrate heroes for what they have accomplished and against what odds! We scoff at people for acting against societal norms. Infamous folks (Hitler, General Dyer etc) are denounced for the wrongs that did. People are promoted at work for a particularly difficult project (or initiative) that they successfully executed and students are celebrated for getting high marks on tests. We also disparage folks who are not able to execute projects or do not get good grades at school. As a society we are all about acts of commission. This is done to encourage merit and value creation.

In our fascination for acts of valour and heroism, we end up ignoring another kind of heroism and value creation — one which is covert and not seen easily. Many times, situations that need rescuing can be nipped in the bud or not even allowed to arise, in the first place. One who drives a vehicle sensibly so that accident does not happen (or likelihood of accident is reduced significantly) is also a hero. One who writes high quality code and does not let issues creep into production environments creates great but unseen value. A political leader who lobbies and negotiates behind the scenes and avoids a war contributes way more value to humanity than leaders who engage in war (ones who engage in proxy wars are worse).

Once a disaster is underway, minimizing damage and recovery become critical. But how about avoiding the disaster in the first place? Isn’t avoiding disaster way more valuable?

Great leaders recognize this and incentivize avoidance of issues and importantly disincentivize creation of issues.

But this blog is not a rant against sins of commission but like my other blogs, this is also about recognizing (insidious) patterns around us and finding ways to limit their damage and where possible, turn them into advantage.

We get swayed by the glamour of “action” — in order to make progress, we plan and take subsequent actions. And many times this is the right thing to do, however, on many other occasions, we cause more damage by our actions.

“No action” should be considered as a bonafide option while evaluating possible approaches to address a situation. It is very tricky to determine when not acting is the best option. The thing about situations is that there can be more than one “right” decision even if each decision may end up in a different result. In the face of this kind of ambiguity and uncertainty, how do we guide our thinking process? Timeless qualities — those that have remained true and valid for long periods of time could be considered –qualities that stood the test of time can be used as guidelines and anchors in choosing the best alternative — in improving our decision-making process — in deciding if we should act or consciously decide not to act.

Few examples of timeless qualities

  • Building stuff with quality takes time, focus and energy — all good things take time and require patience
  • To be able to appropriate value for oneself, one will have to create value for the world first. One will have to “give” to be able to “take”
  • Client satisfaction trumps building a product to agreed up specification
  • “Mutation drives evolution”: Thinking differently is essential for extraordinary success
  • Adaptability trumps Strength: Not the strongest but the most adaptable beings survive
  • “Empirical” trumps “Theoretical”: While theory is important, progress comes mainly from application of knowledge
  • “Entropy is the nature of the Universe”: Things (priorities, furniture, goals, desires etc) naturally get disorganized (or decay) with time and hence constant effort is needed to keep them in tow

I have studied a number of successful financial investors — their methods, their anxieties, their convictions etc. One surprising commonly held belief by them is that their biggest investing mistake is selling a stock too soon (even if at a healthy return) — they almost never talk about buying a bad stock as among their biggest mistakes. “Selling” a stock is an action and consciously choosing not to sell is an active decision — it is a cognitive action, although no external action can be seen. It is a conscious act of omission — not selling the stock and retaining it in the portfolio. A stock that returns 10X (ten times the original purchase price) will go past milestones of 2X, 3X etc and perhaps multiple detours into value below the original purchase price as well. On what basis can one hold on when a stock has fallen 50% and then grew to two times the purchase price — would you wait for further appreciation or would you realize the 100% return — particularly because you have already seen your investment value drop by 50% in this journey. This is where conviction in investment thesis is meant to inform the decision and the anchor for such thesis, in all likelihood, lies in the business fundamentals of the company that the stock represents.

So, next time you think of changing your job, consider if your frustration is due to a bad boss Or due to the general organizational culture? Are you able to learn valuable subject matter that is especially available in the current organization? Is this leaning going to be valuable in the long run? Are you learning a hot skill (Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Robotic Process Automation, Kubernetes etc) or a capability (like design thinking, project management, team leadership, project finance etc)? Does this learning align with your long-term career inclination? If you can gain long term advantage at the cost of enduring short-term pain, then not changing job right away is the right thing. “No action” is the “right action”. More on career/job choices can be read here and here.

“Errors of omission, lost opportunities, are generally more critical than errors of commission. Organizations fail or decline more frequently because of what they did not do than because of what they did.” — Russell L. Ackoff

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Thanks for taking time to read this article. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals and desires. I share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile, please do share it with others — of course, only if you do not mind it.

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