Decisiveness Is a Muscle
The hundreds of choices we face every day are our gym.
I’ve been deliberating about what to write this week, and the internal debate has gone longer than I like–which seems like the perfect topic. Let’s do this.
Lately I’ve been working on something very specific in life and work: Shortening the length of the debate-decide-act cycle. Whether I’m deciding what to eat for lunch, whether to hire a candidate, or what school my kid should go to next year, I want to gather info, consider the options, make a call, and move on without getting stuck or stalled along the way.
Being decisive is a key part of being action-oriented. Deliberating too long on decisions is downright debilitating. Decisiveness is a muscle, and life, which involves hundreds of choices on a daily basis, is our gym.
In my effort to become more decisive, there are a handful of powerful forces I have to continuously, actively resist.
When you’re making a decision, you think through all the possible scenarios and outcomes, and identify the risks in each one, so that you can weigh them. But thinking through all the things that can go wrong–because let’s face it, so many things can and do go wrong–can put you in a paralyzed stress position.
To be decisive, you have to get real good and comfortable with the risks you’re willing to take. I find it helpful to state the decision and acknowledge its risks and the rationale for taking them, i.e., “We’ve decided to work on new features over fixes because we’re still finding product-market fit. This will probably upset current users feeling the pain of unfixed bugs and that is a risk we’re going to take because increasing new user growth is more important to us right now than building loyalty with current users.”
When you’re making a decision, you’re almost always choosing between two or more deeply imperfect options. (If you’re not, then the choice is obvious and the decision is effortless.) Every less-than-ideal option has disadvantages. Your job is to pick the one that’s the least bad, even if it’s not good.
This is tough for perfectionists to stomach, because no scenario meets their standards. This tempts them to put off making the decision at all, and just default to status quo, because every decision outcome feels like a garbage option. Of course, not making a choice is a choice in and of itself–but don’t make it because you can’t accept imperfection.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
Decisive people make decisions. Sometimes those decisions reverse earlier decisions. Changing course doesn’t make you indecisive, it means you recognized a mistake and you’re willing to correct it. Going down a bad path can and should stop immediately, the minute you realize that’s what it is.
Don’t get sucked into an escalation of commitment to earlier decisions that no longer make sense in the present moment. Decisive people course-correct, aggressively. They look forward, not back.
Getting Hung Up on Implementation Details
Sometimes you have to make a high-level decision without a fully-formed, detailed execution plan. Sometimes you have to say, “We’re not sure exactly how we’ll pull this off, but we’ll figure it out.”
This kind of uncertainty can be scary, especially for people on the ground, but trying to avoid it can waylay deliberations into execution planning sessions. “But how would we even do that?” is how it starts, and in order to keep things moving, you’ve got to paint broad strokes and trust the rest will come into focus when you get there. Zooming too close in on the details of how versus why too early is a risk to the decision-making process itself.
Especially in strategic business decision-making, which lead to new efforts that involve lots of smart and capable people on the ground, it’s important to remember that implementation details can be worked out later.
Making decisions is hard and fraught with risk. You might make a bad one and look like a fool. But you won’t know till you do, and then you’ll make a better one.
Making timely, confident decisions is a practice. The more you decide, the easier it gets to do so, the faster you fail, adjust, repeat, and eventually succeed.