“Should we do X, Y or Z? I’ve asked my team and we all think something different.”
“We have these four options, but I’m just waiting on next month’s data to help decide, what do you think?”
“I can invest in this part of the business, or that part, or the other part, but I just don’t want to get it wrong, what would you do?”
If, as a leader, your idea of making a decision is to gain the consensus of everyone you work with and continue waiting for just that one last bit of supportive data — you’re doing it wrong.
For most of my career, I’ve always found myself in the privileged position of talking with many business leaders. Privileged because I’m sure I’ve learned more from them than they have from me over the journey.
But in all those conversations there’s been a common theme: leaders often stumble when it comes to making a decision.
I enjoy drilling in to these decisions and providing some guidance, advice or often simply moral support. But where things get a little hairy is when I ask “how long have you been trying to decide?”
Inevitably, the answer is “weeks”. Sometimes it’s even “months”. It’s almost always accompanied with a sheepish look. After all, a good leader knows a big part of their job is having the gumption to commit to a path forward. Weeks or months of analysis paralysis often only serves as a drag on progress, sometimes even moral, and rarely correlates to making a better decision.
In our current always on global marketplace much value is derived from moving quickly — particularly in the world of tech startups I’ve been in. And the way to pave a path forward quickly is to make choices — each decision an iteration pushing you further along the path.
It’s OK to change your mind
But here’s the thing many leaders seem to ignore or simply be afraid of: you can double back on the path…it’s not a one-way street.
There’s no rule stating you must only go forward in the same direction. If a decision leads you down a path you don’t like or with results you didn’t expect then it’s perfectly fine to double back to the last fork in the road and make a different decision. It’s more than perfectly fine — it’s the responsible thing to do.
Most decisions you make day to day in business and even in your personal life are not do or die, life or death type decisions. These decisions neither warrant weeks of deliberation nor are they irreversible.
Jeff Bezos famously outlined his thoughts about decision making in a letter to Amazon shareholders. He classed decisions as two types:
Type 1: “consequential and irreversible — one-way doors — and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before.”
Type 2: “changeable, reversible — they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a sub-optimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through.”
He pointed out that, by far, most decisions are “type 2” decisions yet he observed that as organizations and leaders grow they tend to treat every decision like a “type 1” decision.
Like it’s life or death.
Experimentation over Implementation
Perhaps as we grow and have greater responsibilities and success we get caught up in our own sense of importance. We begin to believe every decision we make is right and therefore every implementation detail of that decision must be executed to its fullest extent — we must commit to doing what we decided and we must keep pushing down that path until we are satisfied it was indeed the right decision. Sometimes at great cost.
Modern, agile leaders don’t think like this. They ditch thinking about decisions as being right or wrong in favour of treating each like an experiment: “Does this experiment prove or disprove my hypothesis?”
If the data supports their hypothesis they double down and do more of the same. If the data doesn’t support, they go back and make a different decision.
Freeing yourself from the evil spectre of right or wrong can be liberating. This doesn’t relieve you of accountability as a leader but rather turns you in to an efficient, agile, trusted decision making machine — the people you lead see you quickly and confidently making choices, owning outcomes whether they be expected or unexpected, and being unafraid to change course and adopt another choice. It produces dynamic, creative, engaged and motivated teams.
Three Steps To Start Making Decisions More Confidently
1. Think of decisions as experiments: Be open to the fact most decisions you’ll make are reversible “type 2” decisions. Pick a data point that can quickly prove or disprove that your choice is taking you in the expected direction.
For example, you decide to allocate $10,000 on producing and marketing a series of four webinars. You’ve never done webinars before so you’re not sure how many registrations you’ll get. Your hypotheses — based on your usual marketing and sales conversion metrics — is that four webinars will result in 300 registrations, 36 qualified leads, 12 opportunities and 6 closed deals in the same quarter at an average sales price of $18k. So in short — by investing $10k in 4 webinars you’ll generate $108k in net new revenue.
But instead of using that number to measure success or failure at the final outcome pick a relevant datapoint that indicates if you heading in the right direction. I like to call them “signposts”. In this example, a good signpost data point would be after the first webinar. If you don’t hit 50 registrations and have at least 2 qualified leads it’s likely you’re not going to prove the larger hypotheses. Cut your losses, invest the remainder of your $10k in a different experiment, take a learning that webinars (or at least the way you executed that series) aren’t the right lead generation channel for you.
2. Ask for commitment not consensus: A common mistake which delays decision making is being overly cautious of getting around to everybody and anybody in your team or organization to ask their opinion and gain a level of consensus. To be frank, this is often fuelled by a leaders own lack of confidence and willingness to be held accountable (which in itself can be a signal of poor organizational health and culture). By making a popular decision that turns out poorly, you feel the safety of being able to say “well we all thought this was the best decision.” You don’t need consensus — as a leader you want to ask for commitment.
Of course, you’ll still seek out opinions from key stakeholders and your trusted advisors to help inform your thinking. And to remain inclusive you should inform the wider team or organization of the impending decision you’re making (note, informing is much different to asking). No doubt this will elicit additional feedback and input which may or may not impact your decision. For sure, not everyone will agree. And that’s just fine. Healthy debate and giving people the opportunity to be heard is a key factor in gaining commitment.
Lewis Carpenter, CMO during my time at Seattle based hypergrowth startup Auth0, taught me the concept of “disagree and commit”. If you foster a team culture of healthy debate and give people the opportunity to be heard in return they reward you with commitment. Rarely will everyone on your team agree with your decision, but despite this, they should respect it and do what’s required to support it. If your decision making aligns more with the agile experimentation style then your team will be even more willing to commit, knowing you’re not fixed on an idea if it’s not working. Or, as we like to say in Australia, you’re not one to “flog a dead horse”.
3. Train your direct reports to bring you just two choices: Their recommended option, and an alternative option.
When I build teams, I put folks in them I trust implicitly. I trust them to have great ideas, to use data to inform their thinking, to go with their gut feeling. I found it frustrating when my teams would bring something to me for a decision and they’d run through six different options. It made me feel like they didn’t understand that I had complete faith in their abilities to make good judgements. So I became better at clarifying my expectations — when they come to me requiring a decision I want just two options: The one they believe is best, and an alternative option (essentially, the second best).
It’s hard for you to make a quick decision when presented with three or more choices. Often you feel the need to dig deeper yourself in to each alternative. If you can train your team to bring just two options to the table — given you have deep faith in their ability…after all you probably hired them! — there should be very little reason not to be able to walk out of a thirty minute meeting having made a decision.
Making decisions is a fundamental skill for any leader. Don’t underestimate how the tone of your decision making can wash down in to your organization and be reflected by others. Don’t treat every decision as life and death if you’re trying to drive a creative, collaborative and agile environment in your company. Instead, adopt an experimentation mindset and be confident in your option to always walk back down the path and make a different decision for most of the choices you’ll have to make.