There is this wonderful passage in Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. The writer is with her best friend Pammy, who is in the last stages of a terminal illness.
We were at Macy’s. I was modeling a short dress for her that I thought my boyfriend would like. But then I asked her whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, “Annie? You really don’t have that kind of time.”
We really don’t have the time to waffle around and second guess simple decisions. Buy the dress. Don’t buy the dress. Move on. Life’s short.
The same is true in business, where people — who would be reluctant to throw away, say, 3/4 of their profit margin — think nothing of taking a month to decide on something that ought to take a week. Big companies are interviewing candidates 10-12 times over several months before making a decision on a mid-level hire. Investors do due diligence for the better part of a year before deciding to move forward or pass on a deal. People hold two and three hour meetings where items on the agenda are discussed but no decisions are made. True, there are some bet-the-farm decisions that need careful consideration and time to elicit buy-in from all the stakeholders, but for most issues, there is no one right answer and any decision would be preferable to taking so much time. So why do we lallygag when it comes to making a choice?
Lack of process. If you don’t have a good decision making process, you tend to feel that you are missing a critical piece of information. You don’t have confidence in your methodology so you look for more data, ask more people, do more analysis. Sometimes this is a good thing but often it’s just burning daylight. A good process will help you know the difference and encourage you to move forward if appropriate.
Discomfort with ambiguity. We hate making decisions in situations where ambiguity prevails. One of the benefits of a liberal arts education — in addition to helping one sound like a smarty-pants at dinner parties and preparing one for an excellent career as a barista — is that it you learn very quickly that there are no right answers and you never have perfect information. Writing all of those papers on odd topics (The Voice of the Child in Western Canadian Prairie Fiction. Seriously.) teaches one to survey a huge body of information and take a defensible view on the topic. You quickly learn that if you waffle around and wait for perfect information, you’ll be doomed. Memorize this phrase: “good enough for who it’s for,” then move on. It’s what artsys do.
We feel like we are moving quickly. We tweet, we text, we answer emails until our thumbs seize up. We digest more information in a week than people used to absorb in a year. We jump on and off planes and Skype and go to endless meetings. And every 3 months, we are judged on our performance. So we must be making decisions quickly too, right? Wrong. Decisions require some focused thinking and that rarely happens while tweeting, in a meeting, or jumping on and off planes. An hour or two thinking critically about a decision can save weeks or months of time.
It feels like a high stakes game. The reality is, making decisions involves taking risks. A good decision making process helps to mitigate the risk but nothing is for sure. We are so averse to loss, that the potential to make a mistake can cause us to freeze. But doing nothing is almost always worse than doing something: as T.S. Eliot wisely noted, the world ends not with a bang but a whimper. A company that wants to move forward knows that mistakes will be made and will make its people feel secure in spite of that. Making a bad decision should not be a career killer; making no decision should be.
There is safety in numbers. Once upon a time, if you wanted to hire someone, you called a trusted recruiter and a few weeks later you were taking the new guy to lunch at The Keg. If the guy turned out to be a jerk, you fired him and started anew. Now if you make a wrong hire, you and your company can be slapped with a law suit: high stakes. Best you involve HR and recruiters in the process and CYA by using behavioural interviews, reference checks, background searches, and psychological assessments. Oh, and bring the candidates in for a dozen interviews with lots of people to see if something weird comes up. If you happen to hire a bozo, there will be so many other fingerprints on the mess that you can tiptoe away. Phew!
Data overload. Columbia University’s Sheena Iyengar ran the famous “jam test,” which showed that when we are faced with too many varieties of jam, we are unable to choose which one to buy and so we simply walk away. An abundance of choice leads to decision paralysis. We now have more data available on our phones than was once stored in the best graduate school libraries. We are used to data being able to solve our problems. We think that the answer lies “out there” and with a bit more time we will stumble across the one piece of data that will help us make the perfect decision. We never have perfect information so just decide already. The quick brown fox — not the perfect fox — jumps over the lazy dog: speed up.
Decision making is not a proxy for having a crystal ball. When we are asked to make decisions that have a future impact (in other words when we are asked to make any decision), we want to have some certainty about the future before moving ahead. Of course, this is impossible but we demand it nonetheless. When I worked in banking, we toiled away at creating pro forma financial statements that showed, say, if a company post-aquisition had any hope of repaying its loans. From this, we then created projections of the financial statements based on all sorts of assumptions about the future, some of which were wildly optimistic. We’d then present our findings to senior members of the bank who sat on “Deals Committee.” People were very serious and gruff and asked us if we were “certain” of our numbers. Were we certain of projections of pro formas? Um, OK, we can go with that…
The hips don’t lie (but the numbers might.) At this same Deals Committee, we noted that people seemed to derive more certainty from numbers than from any other type of information. People would rather make a decision based on these projections of pro formas than drill down to understand the underlying assumptions. So showing a spike in EBITDA three years down the road got more airtime than determining if there was a good succession plan for the aging CEO or if the industry that they dominated was on the wane. Numbers feel safe but they are not gospel. By looking at the entire picture, you can feel more comfortable moving ahead.
Values aren’t clear. When you go to McDonald’s do you get flummoxed when they ask you if you want to supersize your meal? Of course not. You have your own pre-established heuristic when it comes to fast food. Fast Food = Fat = “No thanks.” Or Supersize = Good Value = “Yes please!” Yes or no is easy. If you walked in to the place with no sense if you valued health over bang-for-your-buck, your decision would be more difficult. If your company values are clear, you make people’s jobs that much easier.
You are out of practice. Practice making unimportant decisions quickly. Many decisions require wading through information, detailed analysis, stakeholder consensus building, and careful deliberation. Many decisions don’t. We are used to demanding that we make the best decision rather than a decisions that suits our needs. As Gretchen Rubin points out in her book The Happiness Project, Satisficers are happier than Maximizers. Find a solution that works and go with it. Practice making unimportant decisions quickly. You can practice by playing videogames (studies show that it helps.) You can flip a coin. I have one of those unazukin dolls that were popular a few years ago. It’s basically a mashup of a Russian matryoshka doll, Fisher Price Little People circa 1975, and a Magic 8 Ball, and when you ask it a yes or no question, it randomly nods or shakes its head (clearly unazukin is Japanese for “too much discretionary income.”) If it’s not all that important I let the unazukin decide.