When my niece was 4 years old, she looked at her mom (my sister) and said, “I can’t wait until I’m an adult so I can be in charge and make all the decisions.” My sister laughed and laughed.
Being in charge looks glamorous from the outside, but it is challenging, painful, and sometimes soul-wrenching. Never is this truer than when you must make a tough decision and don’t have all the data you want or need.
But lately, I’ve noticed more and more executives defer making decisions. They’ll say they want more data, to hear what another executive thinks, or are nervous that we’re rushing to decide.
This deferral is a HUGE problem because making decisions is literally their job! After all, as Norman Schwarzkopf wrote in his autobiography, “When placed in command, take charge.”
When you decide, you lose
A decision is “a choice that you make about something after thinking about several possibilities.” Seems innocent enough, right? Coke or Pepsi. Paper or plastic. Ariana Madix or Raquel Leviss (if you don’t know about this one, consider yourself lucky. If you choose to know about it, click here).
The problem with making decisions is that loss is unavoidable. Heck, the word “decide” comes from the Latin roots “de,” meaning off, and “caedre,” meaning cut. When you choose Coke, paper bags, or Ariana, you are cutting off the opportunity to drink Pepsi with that meal, use a plastic bag to carry your purchases or support Rachel in a pointless pop culture debate.
Decisions get more challenging as the stakes get higher because the fear of loss skyrockets. Loss aversion, a cognitive bias describing why the psychological pain of loss is twice as acute as the pleasure of gain, is common in cognitive psychology, decision theory, and behavioral economics. You see this bias in action when someone refuses to ask questions or challenge the status quo, to take a good deal because it’s below their initial baseline, or to sell an asset (like a house) for less than they paid for it.
No decision is the worst decision
Deciding not to decide is often the worst decision of all. Because it feels like you’re avoiding loss and increasing your odds of making the right decision by gathering more data and input, it’s easy to forget that you’re losing time, employee engagement and morale, and potential revenue and profit.
When you decide not to decide, progress slows or even stops. No decision gives your competition time to catch up or even pass you. Your team gets frustrated, morale drops, and people search for other opportunities to progress and have an impact. The date of the first revenue slips further into the future, slowly becoming just a theoretical number in a spreadsheet.
Decide how to decide
In a VUCA world, a perfect, risk-free decision that offers only upside does not exist. If it did, the business wouldn’t need an executive with your experience, intellect, and courage. Yet here you are.
It’s your job to make decisions.
Make that job easier by deciding how to decide
Tell people what you need to see to say Yes. “I’ll know it when I see it” is one of the biggest management cop-outs ever. If you don’t know what you want, don’t waste money and time requiring your team to become mind readers. But you probably know what you want. You’re just afraid of being wrong. Instead of allowing your fear to fuel inefficiency, tell the team what you need or want to see and that, as they make progress, that request might change. Then set regular check-ins so that if/when it happens, it happens quickly and is communicated clearly.
Break big decisions down into little decisions. I once worked with a team that had an idea for a new product. They planned to pitch to the executive committee and request 3 million dollars to develop and launch the idea. After some coaxing, we decided to avoid that disaster and brainstormed everything that needed to be true to make the idea work. We devised a plan to test the three assumptions that, if we were wrong, would instantly kill the idea. When we pitched to the executive committee, we received an immediate Yes.
Present options and implications. As anyone with a toddler knows, you don’t ask yes or no questions. You give them options – do you want to wear the yellow or pink shirt? If they pick something else, like their Batman costume, you explain the implications of that decision and why the options previously presented are better. Sometimes they pick the yellow shirt. Sometimes they pick the Batman costume. You could force them to make the right decision, but no one wins. (Yes, I just compared managers to toddlers. Prove me wrong).
It’s your decision
Being in charge requires making decisions. When you decide, you lose the option (maybe temporarily, maybe forever) to pursue a different path. But you can’t be afraid to do it.
After all, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”