Lack of weakness != Presence of strength

Ben Horowitz introduced us to the concept of making hiring decisions based on the presence of monumental, outstanding strengths of the candidate as opposed to their absence of weaknesses. The latter mode yields a longer list of attributes and skills in the post interview debriefs and creates a compelling argument on paper to make that particular hire. However when the execution mode kicks in, stuff that correlates with performance outcomes generally is what the candidate is exceptional at. People win by applying skills they possess, not by not applying skills they don’t.

It turns out this decision fallacy goes beyond hiring decisions. While seeming perfectly rational and less risky at the outset, the framework often backfires in reality. And there is a often a distinct tell tale sign to alert the decision makers. More on that later in the article.

Some more examples of this flawed approach — say you are evaluating which features to build for your product and you are gravitating toward the ones that check the most boxes i.e the ones that make sales happy, that satisfy long standing customer requests, that differentiate you from your competitors. Good choice, right? May be. Meeting threshold requirement on many fronts, often doesn’t help you win the war. You might end up checking all those boxes and yet fail to materially move the needle on your win rate or reduce churn for example, end up with minor success, and short lived happiness from your constituents that you optimized so gleefully for.

May be you are thinking about starting a company and have many ideas. You have diligently done your business canvas work and now you are down to pros and cons. And you start leaning towards that idea that is “less hard to execute”, “has lower adoption risk”, “larger market size” yada yada. You are being seduced by this impressive lack of weaknesses. You pick that idea and realize later, that while the market size was bigger than the other idea, it is still too small to be meaningful. You came below the threshold. While the other idea you ignored could have made you the king of the smaller category with the first/second mover advantage.

May be you are creating a company strategy. Often I see arguments in favor of a strategy rooted in “The status quo is untenable”. Status quo gets a bad rep, for a good reason. But simply moving away from status quo doesn’t guarantee success. Whether you will win on the new strategy is a function of the merits of the new strategy as though the status quo didn’t exist. It needs to stand on its own as your market will evaluate it on its unique outcomes not how better or different it was from the status quo. You have to be rigorous about the new and not just be dismissive of the old.

The tell tale sign preceding these lack of weakness driven decisions are choice comparisons. As human beings we are attuned to making decisions by creating of set of choices and then selecting from those choices as a second step. Whether we are creating a pool of candidates, a list of features, a list of company formation ideas or plan-A/B strategy for the company — we engage in optioneering. Comparing options reduces the set of choices and generates minimum acceptable criterion. But this is where the caution needs to kick in. You must switch to looking for outlier strengths at some point in this comparison cycle so you don’t end up with mere threshold strengths that end up not moving the needle. At some point you have to stop comparing and look at your preferred choice in cold dark isolation.

Very often we are against a wall and faced with 2 hard choices A or B, and neither alternatives look good. The question to ask yourself is “what is the alternative scenario to these options”, “what is the cost of going wrong”, “what is the price of not doing anything” and most importantly “Am I in a position to conduct a low cost, time bound experiment to learn before committing to either option fully”?

Decide thoughtfully, decide consciously. Sometimes active waiting is the right answer.