Understanding Inaction

It’s easy to think of “inaction” as simply the lack of action, but it isn’t that simple. Inaction is an action. It’s a conscious choice to maintain the status quo. There are many reasons organizations choose not to act on opportunities or insights about their own performance. The diagram below is called a fishbone, or cause and effect diagram. It’s a useful diagnostic tool for figuring out the root causes for a specific problem. In this case, despite evidence that government isn’t performing at its highest potential, there is continued inaction. The key is figuring out why.

The Inaction Fishbone

Conducting a fishbone exercise in your organization is very simple:

  • Gather a diverse group of individuals with intimate knowledge of your government and agree on a problem statement (the effect).
  • Write the problem/effect down on the far right side of a whiteboard or flip chart for everyone to see and draw an arrow pointing to it.
  • As a group, brainstorm all the possible major causes of the problem/effect. Typical results include big categories, such as people, technology, process, methods, environment, culture, leadership, etc.
  • Write the causes as branches flowing into the main arrow.
  • For each major branch, ask the group “why is this happening?” Write down each answer as a branch flowing into the main cause category. If the answers aren’t the root cause of the problem, keep asking why again and again until you’ve found the root cause. For example:
    • Problem/Effect: Customer Satisfaction is Low
    • One Potential Cause: Shipping
    • Why customers unhappy with shipping? Because products are being shipped to the wrong addresses.
    • Why are products being shipped to the wrong address? The database for customer orders is incompatible with our shipping database.
    • Why are the two systems incompatible? Because no one has built an address translation layer between the two systems yet. Once we build that, the issue would be fixed.
    • Why has no one built a translation layer? No one was asked to.

In this fictitious example, an organization continues to deal with low customer satisfaction because no one was held accountable for fixing it, not an uncommon phenomenon in government organizations. In fact, social psychologists have found people are often encouraged to avoid taking action when responsibility is diffused across multiple parts of a large organization and it doesn't get much larger than government.

If your government is experiencing the problem of inaction, GovEx recommends conducting a brainstorming exercise, like the fishbone, to identify root causes and make a plan to address them. To guide practitioners through some common causes for inaction, GovEx created an inaction fishbone based on the experiences of governments across the country. We will deal with each “cause” as a group and offer prescriptions for overcoming them.

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