When Is It Okay To Do Nothing?

Originally posted on 

Doing nothing is always an option. It’s not always a popular option, but it often gets overlooked as an option at all. Especially in times of crisis, the instinct to act is so great that we often forget doing nothing may be the best option. Before you jump into evaluating all of the possible solutions to your problem, it’s worth asking yourself: do you need to take action at all?

The Framework

One of the earliest lessons I received on decision-making frameworks was from an executive at my first PM job. There was a full-blown crisis with our product. Our Chief Product Officer pulled all the product managers into a conference room for triage. He proceeded to draw the following 2x2 matrix on the whiteboard:

The Purpose

Our CPO shared that he had learned this framework from a friend of his who is a surgeon. This is the framework that the surgeon uses to walk patients through tough decisions about a surgery. In the surgeon’s case, she uses the matrix to drive discussions about a patient’s decision to have surgery or not. This helps the patient break a complex decision down into its constituent pieces and make abundantly clear what the trade-offs are for his or her choices.

At any juncture when you have a desire to act, this framework can help you evaluate whether action is necessary, even if you may not know exactly what action needs to be taken yet. By filling out the 2x2 matrix, you start to define a few key components of your decisions. Doing this up front can potentially save valuable time and energy.

The Incredible Value of Best-case and Worst-case Outcomes

When you flush out the best- and worst-case scenarios when doing something or doing nothing, you’re effectively defining the full spectrum of plausible outcomes. The ends of the spectrum becomes the boundaries of your decision — knowing the range enables you take two critical actions:

  1. Recognize extreme ends of the spectrum. This has extremely valuable because it allows you to set expectations on the full range of outcomes for your and your team, e.g. see that perhaps worst-case isn’t so bad after all, or conversely that the best-case doesn’t actually resolve your situation.
  2. Draw a line on what an acceptable outcome is. Often times there are many solutions that solve a problem. Defining what the acceptable range of outcomes affords you the freedom choose whichever option that makes the most sense based on other optimization factors depending on your situation (cost, time, impact, …etc).

Especially in a crisis situation, taking these key actions will contribute heavily to your decision on whether to do anything at all — and if so, what all your options are and which can resolve the problem most optimally.

An Example

So let’s say I had a skiing accident and tore a ligament in my knee (true story). Since this type of injury does not heal on its own, the only option I have is knee reconstruction surgery.

This is what the 2x2 looks like for knee reconstruction surgery would look like:

You can begin to see the patterns:

  • When you do nothing (the two squares on the bottom), the best- and worst-case outcomes are the same, effectively means there’s no upside to doing nothing.
  • When you look at both worst-case scenarios (the two squares on the right), the only additional risk of doing something is surgery complications.
  • When you look at both best-case scenarios (the two squares on the left), you can see a range of benefits when you choose do something.

From this, you can quickly deduce that doing something has greater value due to the number of upsides (stable, full range of motions, low chance of re-injury) and only one downside (surgery complications) compared to doing nothing.

Priorities and Probability of Success

One of the first things you may note with the example above is that different people may vary in how they prioritize the upsides. For an athlete or an active individual, stability and full range of activities is far more important — knowing this will certainly push the decision towards “doing something.”

What this framework will also prompt the critical questions about the probability of each outcome. Using the knee surgery example again, if your doctor was to tell you that knee surgery has a very high rate of success (i.e. 95%) and surgery complications are very unlikely, this will also push your decision towards “doing something.”

On the flip side, for someone in their 80’s, the probability of surgery complications increases dramatically and the desire to be fully active may be low, so someone in that position may consider opting for “doing nothing.”

Optimizing for the Best Solution Option

Once you’ve figured out you need to do something to address a problem, and if you have several solutions you can choose from to fulfill your range of acceptable outcomes, you can begin to optimize for other factors like cost and quality.

Drawing from the knee surgery example one last time, there are actually two common solution options for knee reconstruction. Grossly simplifying the options ( I’m not a doctor), you can choose to: 1) take ligament tissues from somewhere else on your body and transplant it to your knee, or 2) source ligament tissues from a donor. The former procedure takes longer to recover from but yields better results (higher recovery cost, higher-quality outcome) — as such, this is recommended for younger people with more expected years of use for their knees. The latter procedure takes less time and effort to recover from, but your knee will be noticeably weaker than before (lower recovery cost, lower-quality outcome) — this is usually recommended for older folks who is less likely be active.

Application to Product Management

While the most frequent and impactful usage of this framework is with crisis management, the same analysis can be applied to almost any action you take as a product manager. Since one of the core competency for product managers is to say “no,” being able to assess the cost and impact of doing nothing goes a long way in helping keep your teams focused on what’s most important. Since doing nothing is often not a popular choice, being able to articulate your rationale with a framework like this can earn you buy-in from stakeholders more quickly.


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