Action, Process, People, Idea

Epistemic status

I am writing this one mostly for myself. So there are probably going to be some extrapolations here and you shouldn’t read into it too much. 🐉Here be dragons!🐉Also the style is a bit all over the place and I am trying to say too many things in one piece I think. I would love to hear your feedback on how I could have structured this one better.

A recent frequency illusion… or maybe not?

A colleague recently introduced me to this framework that people have 4 orientations in their “communication styles” - Action, Process, People and Idea. This framework has been extremely appealing to me. In fact, its been at least 2.5 months since I heard it and I still can’t help but keep thinking about it now and again. At this point, I have a feeling I am suffering from a frequency illusion. I am seeing it everywhere and beginning to confirm to myself that this framework is somehow really important when it probably is not as important …. or I am just a process-oriented person stuck in the logic of it all instead of just using it and getting stuff done! I felt like writing about the framework, its appeal and, where I have been seeing it would help me moderate my bias better.

The framework

The Action, Process, People, Idea framework is based on the assumption that people primarily orient towards one of 4 “communication styles”1 . I am going to explain the 4 orientations by quoting keywords because the framework seems to have been built around a survey instrument2 designed around these keywords:

  • Action-oriented: Talks mostly about ‘results’, ‘performance’, ‘getting stuff done’ etc.. When I think of this, I imagine someone who gets a high ticking things off a checklist. In the extreme, this would be someone who would justify the ends over the means always - a pure consequentialist.
  • Process-oriented: Talks mostly about ‘plan’, ‘systematic procedure’, ‘proof’ etc.. When I think of this, I imagine a pedantic professor or maybe a software engineer who worries way too much about how the code is written even if the code gets the job done. In the extreme, this would be someone who considers the means of doing something to be far more important than the end result - a pure deontologist.
  • People-oriented: Talks mostly about ‘people’, ‘motivations’, ’teamwork’, ‘spirit’, ‘sensitivity’ etc.. When I think of this, I imagine an extremely extroverted person full of hot air who could talk with anyone and make them feel special!
  • Idea-oriented: Talks mostly about ‘concepts’, ‘innovation’, ‘big ideas’, ‘vision’, ‘mission’. When I think of this, I imagine Steve Jobs - just big ideas without much technical expertise.

Everyone’s communication style is a mix of these 4 orientations. People may have one dominant orientation. But it is rare to find someone who purely has only one of these 4 styles. But this is not the framework itself. The framework is a set of recommendations to guide you when dealing with people with each of the 4 styles:

  • When communicating with an Action-oriented person:
    • Focus on the result first; state the conclusion at the outset.
    • State your best recommendation; do not offer many alternatives.
    • Be as brief as possible.
    • Emphasize the practicality of your ideas.
    • Use visual aids.
  • When communicating with a Process-oriented person:
    • Be precise; state the facts.
    • Organize your discussion in a logical order: Background-Present situation-Outcome
    • Break down your recommendations.
    • Include options and alternatives with pros and cons.
    • Do not rush a process-oriented person.
    • Outline your proposal
  • When communicating with a People-oriented person:
    • Allow for small talk; do not start the discussion right away.
    • Stress the relationship between your proposal and the people concerned.
    • Show how the idea worked well in the past.
    • Indicate support from well-respected people.
    • Use an informal writing style.
  • When communicating with an Idea-oriented person:
    • Allow enough time for discussions
    • Do not get impatient when he or she goes off on tangents.
    • Try to relate the discussed topic to a broader concept or idea.
    • Stress the uniqueness of the idea or topic at hand.
    • Emphasize future value or relate the impact of the idea to the future.
    • If writing, try to stress the key concepts that underlie your recommendation at the outset. Start with an overall statement and work toward the particulars.

From the limited digging I did, the framework is referenced in a book from the 80s called “Training for the cross-cultural mind: a handbook for cross-cultural trainers and consultants” by Pierre Casse (Link to but I don’t know if it originated there3. In chapter 9, the book provides a survey instrument for people to find out which of the 4 orientations they prefer and then talks about how they can switch across the 4 styles. The book’s takeaway is this - if you want to be effective at communication (across cultures) you need to identify which of the 4 styles the other person prefers and respond as per the recommendations above.

The appeal

Here are some hunches I have on why this framework is appealing. The primary reason for its appeal is that you can immediately start using it. First off, because the framework typically comes packaged with the survey instrument4 you can take the survey and tell which of the 4 styles you are dominantly oriented towards. Then, since you have identified your own orientation, you feel confident in your ability to start pegging other people down to one of the 4 types and then use the framework’s recommendations on them. In short, it seemingly enhances your self-awareness and ability to communicate.

Seeing it everywhere

Since the framework is built on this fairly vague terminology of Action, Process, People and Idea, it is very easy to start associating it with other things. On top of that, since it is about enhancing your self-awareness you probably have some personal baggage to which it easily correlates. As an instance of this, the rest of this post is going to discuss the story of how I have been seeing the framework everywhere in my personal baggage. I then conclude by talking about what I am going to do with all this and how I am thinking about approaching my PhD in light of this framework.

Structured Procrastination by John Perry

A book that was very helpful to me when I was struggling in high school/early in college was this seemingly stupid5 but actually quite useful book called “Structured Procrastination” by John Perry (Link to essay on which the book is based). But now I see this book and the bigger concept of procrastination in a new light. I think of procrastination as just an Idea person trying to be an Action person but falling short. Ideas themselves are far too perfect 6 but actions and outputs are not. So when you are an Ideas person and you build it up so much in your head it becomes difficult to do anything about it and so you keep putting it off (i.e.) you procrastinate.

Brain Crack by Ze Frank

This concept of perfection in ideas v action is something that also comes up in an episode of the show by Ze Frank7. Ze Frank calls it “Brain Crack” and here is his video about it 8

The problem with personal productivity literature

Another book that I have read and has influenced me quite a bit is “Getting Things Done” by David Allen9. With this new framework in mind I am beginning to feel that I may have put too much weight on this book’s usefulness; that it is at least partly misleading. I now see the premise of many of these books as a call for their readers to be more Action-oriented. But the substance of these books doesn’t align with their premise. The substance of these books is actually about a Process-oriented style.

The book talks about how to collect your ideas with an inbox, how to make checklists properly and how to organize those checklists with a checklist of checklists! But collecting your ideas or making a perfect checklist doesn’t mean you are getting anything done. For are an Ideas-oriented person this is another way to procrastinate. Instead of putting the idea to action now you have made a checklist of actions and feel good about yourself for setting up the process for when you would eventually get around to executing the idea.

To be clear, this is not as bad as procrastinating. In fact, when you make a checklist you may realize some of the perfectionist elements in your idea and clean it up to be more reasonable. So in that way I am thankful to the book for making my life more organized. But at the end of the day you are still not getting things done and when a book has that as its title but simply talks about the process, it is fair to criticize it and the cult around it for being at least partly misleading. In short, you can fall short of taking idea to action by getting stuck in the nitty-gritty of the process. It simply lets you give a different direction to your perfectionist fantasy10 - instead of fantasizing about the idea, now you fantasize about the process of execution. At the end of the day, it is all still a fantasy - nothing is getting executed!

Do by Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse

Taking stock of what I have said so far, if you are an Ideas person, you have two levels of fantasy to overcome. First you live in the fantasy world of the idea itself. This is what I did throughout high school. Then you can live in the fantasy world of the process of execution of that idea. This is what I have been doing since college, into my work life and to the present. In the latter fantasy, I felt far less terrible than the former and the productivity from it has contributed to my progress until now. After all when you refine the process, it does make it easier to do things. But at the end of the day, I could be way more productive (and feel even less terrible) if I just took an idea and immediately did something about it!

But is productivity and quantity all that matters? What about the quality? If you are a software engineer, is it enough to just write code that gets the job done regardless of the performance or readability of that code? If you are an artist, should you keep creating things or should you take the time to make your masterpiece? More urgent to my present situation, for my PhD thesis, should I just focus on whatever policy idea tickles my fantasy and seems interesting or be patient and come up with a novel, useful and important idea that would change the policy world?

This fundamental conflict of quantity v quality finds expression in the wonderful exchange between two prominent artists of the last century - Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse. Around March 1965 Eva wrote to Sol about her creative struggle and Sol wrote back to her a month later with one of the best pieces of communication (daresay, art!) I have ever come across. Here is Benedict Cumberbatch reading it on stage:

I now see this whole exchange in the light of this new framework. Eva Hesse is worried about process. Sol LeWitt is asking to let go of her worry and demands that she “Just do”. In other words, he is demanding her to switch her orientation from Process to Action. He also rightly points out how difficult it can be to switch from one orientation to the other when he says, “.. but it is very painful. I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do this stuff and not even think about it.”

“One for me. One for them.” by Sara Dietschy

But there is a problem with Sol LeWitt’s “Just do” as well and Sol himself admits it - “It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. … Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on.” This trouble with the Action oriented style comes up in Sara Dietschy’s story as well. She is a popular YouTube content creator and she says her style is “One for me. One for them.” Here is her explaining it:

In short, feel comfortable to “Just do” and make something. In the case of Sara, it is making videos that, as she says it, “…were not necessarily exciting for me to film and edit”. But also take time to refine your craft/process and make something to keep the ideas/process fantasy alive. “…stuff you are excited to make”, as Sara says it. Remember the fantasy has its uses. The fantasy is where ideas and process come from to push you “on and on”! It is my dominant orientation and maybe even my comparative advantage.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Earlier in Feb of this year I had gotten the PhD acceptance and I was given a deadline to confirm my acceptance. It was a tough decision to make with a lot of uncertainty but I decided to bite the bullet. Around that time is when the 95th Oscars happened and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (EEAAO) won Best Picture (among other categories). When it happened, to the irrational part of me, it felt like an ominous implication of the decision I had just made - I had to find a way to somehow do EEAAO. I think at the end of the day this framework has given me a way to deal with this ominous implication. Action, Process, People and Idea constitute everything. I see it everywhere in what I have read/heard/known so far. The only way to reconcile all 4 is to do all 4 all at once.

Here is how I am planning to approach this EEAAO. Come up with ideas (the Ideas orientation) and make sure to find a way to act on them in a short timeframe (the Action orientation) like in a couple of weeks. Think of the action in those couple of weeks as a sign for whether to pursue the idea further or to abandon it. If am abandoning it, I move on to the next idea and repeat the cycle. If I am going to pursue it further, I think of the process (i.e.) research methodology and refine it to make it fit for publication (the Process orientation). Also take it to a potential collaborator (the People orientation) like a professor and get their feedback. This should also help me create my thesis committee.

This is really the way for me to moderate my potential conformation bias on this framework - put it into action as I explained and see if it works. If it does work, does it really matter if it was a confirmation bias? At the end of the day, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

  1. I have no idea how to define “communication style”. It feels like it could be the same thing as “personality”. After all, its not far-fetched to think how you talk is probably how you think and maybe who you are. But then the whole idea of perceiving a person’s “personality” is problematic as I learnt from this episode of the Invisibilia podcast↩︎

  2. Or maybe the survey instrument was built around the framework. I honestly can’t tell! ↩︎

  3. I did some digging around in Google Scholar and saw that the book has ~300 citations. It has gotten around 65-100 citations in every decade following its release. I wonder what the bigger research domain around this is called (if there is one). Google Ngram says that the term “cross-cultural competence” was at all all-time high in 2010 and has still not gone out of vogue (relative to its history) which begins around the 80s when this book came out. ↩︎

  4. In fact if you Google “Action, Process, People, Idea” one of the top 10 results would be this link which provides the survey instrument. ↩︎

  5. The book won the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for literature! The Ig Nobel prize is a parody of the Nobel prize in the same way the Raspberry awards are a parody of the Oscars. ↩︎

  6. The Procrastination book I mentioned actually has a chapter titled “Procrastination and Perfectionism” ↩︎

  7. If you know what that is without clicking on the link, you just scored major points with me, sportsracer! ↩︎

  8. Link to the explicit version for the grown-ups here↩︎

  9. One of the best critical conversations on this book is this episode of the now defunct Hello Internet podcast by CGP Grey and Dr. Brady Haran. The discussion about the book starts at around 1 hour 20 minutes into the episode. ↩︎

  10. “Perfectionist fantasy” is a phrase I am stealing from the John Perry book! ↩︎