The Value of Just Deciding

I recently reserved a rental car for a four day trip in January.

The difference in price between full flexibility / cancel any time and paying fully upfront was more than $200. Put another way, I’d have to pay more than 50% more to keep full flexibility.

I can rationalize until the cows come home about why this flexibility might be valuable to me. Something might change! (The weather, my plans, the number of people I need to drive somewhere…)  But the reality is, I’ve already bought the flight and have sunk other costs into this trip, and it’s happening.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to pull the trigger.

The emotional labor of pushing through all of those “what if’s” and just deciding is big. Big enough that I could even put off deciding all the way until January.

In fact, by the time January rolls around, my future self might have forgotten about the $200 wasted. Worse, my today self has an irrational disregard for the well-being of my future self, and is more than happy to have future-Sasha spend 50% more in four months time.

The point, as always, isn’t about the car rental, the odds of bad winter weather, or the fine print.

The point is that for most things, deciding now, and deciding quickly, saves us time and money, and brings with it countless other benefits, cultural and otherwise.

We allow ourselves not to decide by telling ourselves that we’ll know more in the future, and that preserving optionality has real value.

Just as likely, though, is that this is a story we tell ourselves to justify our unwillingness to push through the resistance.

The costs of indecision are big, and they build upon themselves.

Decide today so that you free up your financial and emotional resources for more important things.

The Three Jobs of Any Leader

If you are a senior person in an organization, you have, at most, three jobs.

  1. Make decisions
  2. Make the people around you better
  3. Do stuff

Make Decisions

Seth argues that this is our most important job, and I agree with him.

In an information economy, decision-making happens constantly: the decision about what to do with the next hour of our time; about whether we’ll serve this customer or that one; about whether our product needs this new feature or that one.

The act choosing of whether we’re doing A or B, whether we’re going here or there, creates forward momentum.

And yet, most people, regardless of their role, avoid making decisions. Making decisions means being willing to take a position, to put ourselves on the line, to have a point of view. Terrifying indeed. Because of this fear, decision-makers are few and far between.

This means that no matter our organizational structure, anyone who regularly chooses to make decisions is a positive outlier with outsized influence on our direction of travel.

Making decisions quickly, and often with less information than we feel like we need, defines a culture that doesn’t have time to waste, because the work is both important and urgent.

And, like all things, the more often we – individually or collectively – make decisions, the better we’ll get at it.

Make the people around you better

Whether defining culture, cheering people on, removing roadblocks, coaching, or empowering others, the highest-leverage job we have is to find great people, bring them into our organization, and do everything we can to help them succeed.

The ability to attract the best people is a superpower. Talent attracts talent, and great attitude is the ultimate multiplier.

If we’re lucky enough to have great people, our main daily obsession, beyond making decisions, is to create an environment in which they can do their best work.

This starts with tons of communication: describing, over and over again, our ‘why;’ articulating where we are heading; making it as easy as possible for people to connect the dots between what they are doing and the big picture.

It requires individualized coaching and mentorship: skillfully deploying situational leadership so that our team has the right balance between supportive and directive oversight, so that their skills and autonomy develop over time.

And, ultimately, it is about standing side-by-side with people as they chart their path and, in so doing, move your whole organization forward.

Doing Things

This comes last on the list, and it may even fall off the list over time.

This might be counter-intuitive. How could “doing things” not be important, especially for your most senior people?

It’s true that most senior people became senior people because of their exceptional ability to do stuff: analyzing, building, visioning, strategizing, organizing, selling, and executing are the foundational skills that got us where we are today.

And yet, deploying these skills is often a low-leverage activity.

At worst, a leader who only ‘does stuff’ might be hiding from her two more important jobs of deciding things and making others better.

And, hiding aside, the act of “doing” too much runs the risk of creating dependency on this leader to do these important tasks.

Our success as leaders in organization, then, requires three things of us:

  1. Making decisions, as well and we can and as quickly as we can
  2. Helping others thrive, and diving into this work every day
  3. Leaving a small space for the jobs that we are uniquely suited to do….and then consistently, actively, giving those jobs to others over time.

Good Decision-Making

Ultimately, our job as leaders boils down to a few things. Having a vision and strategy that is shared, understood, motivating and that inspires action. Creating a great culture. Hiring and supporting great people. And, maybe less obvious, creating an organization that’s good at making decisions.

It turns out that there’s a very high correlation between organizational effectiveness and the quality of organizational decision-making. And the best, most actionable article I’ve found on understanding the quality of an organization’s decision-making says it’s function of:

  • Speed: how fast do you decide?
  • Effort: how much work goes in to making decisions?
  • Quality: how good are the decisions?
  • Yield: how well do you turn decisions into actions?

As someone who’s transitioned from the non-profit to the for-profit sector, my experience is that non-profit organizations typically decide more slowly and with more effort, all without resulting in consistently high(er) quality / higher yield decisions.

I think this is a function of the more multi-faceted accountability in the non-profit world (multiple criteria for success, multiple stakeholders). This in turn leads to slow(er), high(er)-effort decision-making which begets a culture that accepts slower, higher-effort decision-making, even when it’s not always needed.

This is not to say that faster is always better: speed is not useful if we make lots of quick, poor decisions.

Indeed, one of our jobs as leaders is to consistently walk the line of always moving quickly while managing to get the right input from the right people, so that decisions are (mostly) high quality.

The nuance is that how we decide develops into a cultural norm: people watch how decisions get made, learn that behavior by osmosis, and replicate whatever your decision-making culture is.

For example, is it OK in your organization to:

  • Make decisions without formal authority?
  • Change a decision after it’s been made? After the deadline?
  • Leave a decision-making meeting without a decision getting made?
  • Have a more junior person be the decision-making in a meeting with someone more senior?
  • Make a decision that is not documented?
  • Make a decision that doesn’t turn into action?
  • Be unclear who the decision-maker is on a given topic?
  • Have one decision-maker?
  • Have many decision-makers?

While there’s no right answer to any of these questions, my view is that organizational growth creates complexity, and complexity slows things down and allows people to hide.

That’s why most of the time, most organizations would benefit from faster decisions being made by fewer people who take more ownership around being “the decider.”

One helpful way to jumpstart these conversations is by starting to frame decisions as either Type 1 (irreversible, make them very deliberately) or Type 2 (reversible, prioritize speed). You’ll quickly discover that most decisions are Type 2, and that just might give you the freedom to move faster on them.

One final thought: one of the easiest ways to lead, no matter where you sit in an organization, is by choosing, today, to make more decisions without triple-checking if it’s OK. The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll discover that deciding really isn’t allowed (which is important information). The best thing is that more people will start turning to you to decide more things, because you had the courage to step up in the first place.

Crisis Speed

There was a moment, not long after we incorporated 60 Decibels, when I was sitting in the office with my head of operations. We had to decide which of a number of office spaces we had seen was right for us, and what lease to sign.  We discussed it for about five minutes, agreed what we wanted to do…and then we both just stopped for a beat.

Both of us paused because it felt like we needed to check with someone else, to get an additional approval, to run it up the flagpole.

But in a startup, blessedly, there is no flagpole.

Both of us got a bit giddy as we realized it was just up to us. When the surrounding silence made this abundantly clear, we confirmed our decision and moved on. That was the first of a thousand small decisions we made quickly.

She and I had both spent our careers in bigger organizations. We’d learned about things going slowly. It had been, slowly and surely, pounded in to us.

Of course things change in moments of crisis–like what we’re living through right now. When a crisis hits, we all move faster, because what’s happening externally is so big and so universally understood that no one will punish us for choosing to act.

The question that presents itself is: why only in a crisis?

One of the many things we are all learning is that we can up our game when we have to: we can make important decisions and own the consequences.

The people whose job it is to make sure everything is just right have other things to worry about right now. Or they’ve consciously changed their standard, tilting far in favor of action and away from methodically checking off all the boxes.

This has happened because we all understand the cost of inaction in a crisis.

What we shouldn’t forget, not just today but also in a calmer tomorrow, is that the cost of inaction is always high.

Many of us have learned that we can’t get blamed for doing nothing. But the much more important lesson is that inaction and passing the buck are nearly always the most expensive thing–not just because of the things we don’t get done, but because of the culture we build and the lessons we teach our best people:

That’s it’s not really up to them to decide.

That they’re not really on the hook.

That we don’t, when you boil it all down, trust them to act in our best interest.

What could be more damaging to the cultures we aim to build?