Activity vs Action.

In our modern world we are constantly expected to rush and frantically finish our tasks in the name of efficiency. Yet often we find that activity does not translate into the desired action or outcome. It is this “Rush to Action” which is the actual issue, often leading to poor outcomes and undesirable states of mind.

So why do we do it?

The basic fact is that we generally can not distinguish between activity and action. The realm of busywork is populated with people filled with a sense of accomplishment. The simple fact is we are driven by the evolutionary reflex of Fight or Flight. This predisposes us to rapidly respond by reaction, it is this proclivity to activity which makes us feel a sense of control when we are in activity. The difference between activity and action, is often only observed in the final outcome therefore it is very difficult for us and any onlooker to distinguish the two.

Doing things make us feel empowered and better; we feel in control and have a sense of fulfilment because we are doing something about it. Yet this activity is a hollow victory, if the end goals are not reached. The true reward is when we attain our objectives and goals.

If we take the real world example of Cave Diving, a highly technical and inherently dangerous activity, which happens to be fun and scary. Imagine you are diving in a sinkhole cave system and before you know it, you realise you’ve reached the bottom and have lost your bearings and the rest of your group. Initial instinct would be to begin searching for the others and this naturally becomes more frantic as time passes. Although this is a natural and understandable reaction, it usually is not the best course of action. This initial behaviour which manifests itself as activity, will often cause greater problems. The reason frantic activity in such a situation is not a good idea is that you will stir up any silt and mud off the bottom, this will muddy the water and reduce your visibility to the extent you can loose your orientation to the stage where you don’t even know which way is up.

Activity is not always the best action.

So in the above example reactionary activity is highly problematic but even in this example calmer heads and cool action will prevail. Surrounded by zero visibility, not knowing which way is up many would feel lost yet the fact that the bubbles you expire using SCUBA gear will always rise actually will help you identify which way is up. This simple fact and calm action can and will safe your life.

This predisposition to activity can and often does muddy the water when we are trying to determine the actions necessary to attain our goals. Running around like a headless chicken, is an apt description because we loose our senses in the frantic rush. We don’t see, don’t hear and can not clearly understand which are the best options, opportunities and course of actions.

Splitting, Refraction and Facets


Chatting with Steve and Tobbe – we were discussing refraction – light going into a prism and then splitting into a lovely rainbow. It is useful to slightly separate things and it can help us to clarify terminology.

A good example is the term Product Management – I was asked for a definition – so my first place of reference was ‘Escaping the Build Trap’ by Melissa Perri – with an excellent description of the role of a good product manager. This helped a lot – and when I looked into the situation a bit more, I realised that there was more to it. In conversations, not only did we start mixing together the terms Product Manager and Product Owner, but there was something else that was more than the role.

The landing point was to split it out into a few different facets; Profession, Role, Skills and Process – there could be other facets – these were the helpful ones for the recent conversations.

The Profession of Product Management grew from marketing and brand management and has evolved as organisations place more focus on Customer experience and the technology supporting that experience. In some places your career could take you through a range of product management roles all the way up to CPO – Chief Product Officer.

The Role of a Product Manager is to be able to articulate the ‘why’ of a product or feature so that the various teams can build the ‘what’. There is a lot more to it than this – but this is also where it is useful to split out the role from the skills and process facets.

The skills of Product Management need to be performed by many roles. There is the skill of stakeholder engagement to understand needs, goals and drivers. Being good at this skill means that the skill of prioritisation gets a bit easier. Then there are other skills such as data-driven decision making – all of us could use some of these skills in our work activities and we certainly should develop enough of these to be able to understand the outcomes we are aiming for (not just getting the bit of work done).

Product Management in Processes was a bit of a surprise when I noticed it. If we think about large organisations that allocate a certain percentage of time to innovation, this is an example of it. The organisation has prioritised innovation – allocated effort (which is time and therefore budget) with the outcome being to identify and develop new opportunities. The decision about the amount of time to dedicate and the level of priority is a product management decision that has been adopted as part of the regular planning and scheduling process. I’m certain that there are other aspects of product management that we could embed into processes and I will be looking for them.

I have previously blogged about the gradients of misinterpretation – those are still there, in this example there are gradients between one ‘end’ of the definition of Product Management and the other ‘end’. The point of this post is that is can be useful to put a definition through a ‘prism’ and split out some of its aspects or facets into discreet chunks.