‘Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There’: In Praise of Inaction

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In 217 BC Quintus Fabius Maximus found himself defending Rome against the superior forces of the great Carthaginian general Hannibal. Hannibal was an outstanding strategist, and he had already defeated two Roman armies on Italian soil.

Quintus was no fool. Naturally cautious, he knew better than to risk his regiments in another pitched battle. And so he targeted the enemy's supply lines. He harassed and frustrated, delayed and exhausted the Carthaginian troops. And gradually he ground them down. Rome survived to fight another day, and a grateful public named Quintus ‘Cunctator’, ‘the Delayer’. He was subsequently credited as the originator of guerrilla warfare

'One man, by delaying, restored the state to us.’

Through the centuries many military leaders have been inspired by ‘The Delayer’. The Roman Emperor Augustus was wont to advise his commanders ‘festina lente’, which means ‘make haste slowly’ (or ’more haste, less speed’). And at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 Napoleon declared:

‘Never interfere with an enemy while he is in the process of destroying himself.’

The strategy of inaction has been deployed in other fields too. John Wayne summarised his acting style as: ‘Don’t act. React.’ And in 1945 the theatrical producer Martin Grabel is reported to have given this stage direction to an overly expressive actor:

‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’

Grabel’s play-on-words was subsequently enlisted to the field of politics by President Dwight Eisenhower. He used it to mock his industrious Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In July 2016 The Economist observed that German commentators had coined a new verb:

‘“To merkel” means to delay decisions while time diminishes problems to a manageable size, and opponents make valuable mistakes.’ 

Clearly on occasion there is a real and tangible advantage to be gained by delaying; doing nothing; postponing; kicking the can down the road. Problems blow over, solutions reveal themselves, competitors expose their weaknesses.

One has to ask: Do we in the marketing and communications industry make proper use of the strategy of inaction?

Well, we like to think of ourselves as fast and flexible, agile and responsive. We’re proactive, always on, constantly improving. We seek first mover advantage. Delay is not generally something we advocate or celebrate, particularly in the digital age.

But, I wonder, in our day-to-day engagements do we occasionally jump too quickly to conclusions? Are we sometimes too ready with our responses; too free with our opinions; too prompt with our decisions? Do we leap before we look?

It seems to me our energy and sense of urgency on short-term issues mask our passivity and paralysis with regard to more serious long-term corporate challenges.

What happened to that new remuneration model? Where have we got to on the radical efficiency drive? How’s that plan to create our own brands? And what about that initiative to introduce more diversity to our ranks? Et cetera. Et cetera.

I fear we’re a sector of short-term vigour and long-term inertia. We rush in where angels fear to tread, and hesitate where angels hope for solutions. We merely create the illusion of industry.

There is one adman I’ve heard expound the strategy of inaction. The sage planner and entrepreneur Charles Vallance is fond of the dictum:

‘If you ignore a problem long enough, it will go away by itself.’

He might well add: ‘Leaving more time and space to focus on the serious issues.’

Vallance thereby aligns himself with Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Emperor Augustus, Napoleon, John Wayne, Eisenhower and Angela Merkel. They would make an entertaining dinner party.

'Ooh, little girl
Please don't wait for me.
Wait patiently for love
Someday will surely come.
And I'm still waiting.’

 Diana Ross, 'I’m Still Waiting’ (Hal Davis & Deke Richards)



No. 195