8 practical ways to galvanise your decision-making
Finding it harder to make decisions as your company grows? That’s not unusual. When businesses start out, teams are small, and the world moves quickly. It’s why special forces units are always small. Everyone is focused on the same mission, and you power ahead. Challenges are overcome and problems solved at lightning speed.
But then your business starts to grow and become more complex. You’re asked for decisions when you don’t possess all the facts. And if you’re not careful, this can lead to paralysis.
It reminds me of my conversation with Gareth Chick for our Melting Pot podcast. He trains newly minted SVPs at Google. Part of this training is asking questions to which they don’t know the answer. It’s the first time in their careers that they’re no longer domain experts of their teams. So whilst coaching their team, they won’t know how to do the work themselves.
The same situation probably applies if you’re a CEO of a company that’s scaling fast. You’re tasked with decisions, and you might not fully understand them.
So what do you do? How do you keep making quick decisions as your business grows? Here are some tips from my experience as MD of three rapidly scaling companies.
1. Put in a process
If you know decision-making is likely to be a hurdle to growth, put in a process. Then when people join and move through your company, you can teach them an agreed and accepted way of making decisions that everyone follows. Be deliberate and methodical.
Amazon has done this with meetings. When a decision needs to be made, there’s an accepted format to the meeting. The person seeking a decision prepares a two page summary in a legible format to bring forward their proposition. Not acres of PowerPoint – just two pages. It’s clear that the meeting aims to decide on X, Y or Z. Everyone knows this. They arrive, and the first ten minutes are spent reading the two-page summary. They have a discussion and then make a decision. It’s simple and realistic for everyone to follow.
One of our clients told me the other day that they needed to get better at meetings. He felt people needed to send the slide decks out three days in advance. ‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Is that ever going to happen? Will people have time to read and digest it before the meeting?’
Ensure that any process you choose is not so unreachable that you’re setting up your people to fail. Make it crystal clear. This is how we run a meeting to make a decision. It should always look like this. No one’s spouting PowerPoint and talking shit. Everyone’s adequately prepared.
2. Work out if your decision takes you towards your BHAG
This is fundamental. Any decision, no matter how big or small, should take you toward your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be on the table.
3. Understand the problem
This is a big one. Before you decide on the solution, look at the problem. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg has written an entire book on this premise and discussed it with me at length on our podcast. It’s well worth a listen.
Spend some time looking at the problem that this decision aims to address. Because if you’re not careful, you might solve the wrong problem. Once you’ve got to grips with the actual problem, reframe it into as simple a form as possible so that you can test and iterate.
This is one of the reasons I love the OKR framework. You can have ‘committed’, ‘ambitious’ or ‘learning’ OKRs. So this allows you to make a decision to learn something. Too often when people think about decisions, the thing that they commit to has to be a success in their minds. But it can still be a success if it fails and you learn something. If you’re asking for a decision, often there’s something unknown. Maybe you’re asking for a commitment of resources but you don’t know it will definitely succeed. So the decision gets deferred.
Better would be to make a decision to identify the hypothesis. And if you find out you’re wrong, be ok with that. You’ve learned something useful.
4. Identify bias and default decisions
Every decision will have a default. The person seeking it will have an in-built bias and will already have an idea of which way they want it to go. As Chief Decision Scientist at Google, Cassie Kozyrkov has explored and written about this. Whatever is known by the person seeking the decision will lead to a default. So that’s the benchmark against which you can compare other options.
Being deliberate about this helps you spot bias and gives you the option to pick holes in your default decision. And when explaining to other people, your explicit bias helps them to be more objective. You can say, ‘This is what I think. Can you help me understand where I’ve closed my mind?’
Through this, assumptions can be identified and challenged. You may not even be aware of them as assumptions. In your mind, they may be facts. But you’ve put in a framework for disproving the default.
5. Lay out the options
Once you’ve recognised and disproved the default decision, lay out the other options. Understand how you’re going to gather evidence for each option and the different ways you could tackle them.
Weigh up the impact of each of the choices on solving the problem. There might not be a ‘best’ choice. You may have to caveat by saying none of them is ideal but here are the pros and cons. There may well be compromises in each case.
6. Make the decision and review opportunities
Once you’ve worked out the best option, make the decision and immediately review it. A great format for this is pre-mortems. Brainstorm any possible issues before they happen. The pros and cons are often in the here and now. Project forwards and think, if you make this decision, what will happen a year from now?
The business coach Dan Sullivan has an ‘impact filter’ tool. It helps to get clarity on best and worst-case scenarios. If everything goes the right way, where will you end up? And if absolutely everything goes wrong, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
You could see this approach in action when Richard Branson launched Virgin Atlantic during a recession. He decided to lease all the planes from Boeing knowing he could give them back if the business went bust. Venture Capital and PE firms are very familiar with downside mitigation. They do this all the time. Stop and think. If you can’t make your decision work, how do you limit the exposure?
7. Can this decision be reversed?
A few nuggets from the wisdom box of Jeff Bezos. He makes all his decisions in the morning because that’s when he feels mentally sharper. He also looks at whether decisions can be reversed. Sometimes, bigger decisions need to be broken down into a series of smaller ones to make reversing them easier.
This is all about risks. If it’s low risk to say yes to something, then you can move quickly. If it’s high risk and bigger, can you break it down into multiple chunks and make a series of decisions?
8. Prioritise the hypothesis
Work out the parts of the decision that are unknown. There will be certain things you’re likely to need to prove, so do these first. Don’t leave them until last. This is why so many product launches fail. I could build a page this afternoon and run some Google ads. By tomorrow, I’d know if my core customer was likely to buy at a particular price point. And this is even before I’ve made the product.
It’s common for people to decide to do something and embark on a long programme of work. Often there’s a big hypothesis inherent in this. Your first and most important decision should be to test the hypothesis.
One of our clients told me recently that they’d decided to use a vendor’s account management team as their route to market. This was based on the track record of a vendor account manager who’d brought him five new customers. After doing some simple maths based on this success, he’d decided to go out and hire six new salespeople.
I said to him, ‘What if the other vendor account managers aren’t as good as the guy you speak to?’ So he went away and spoke to the account management team. Sure enough, he discovered that none of the others was driving any business through. Our client came back to me thinking he’d failed. But he hadn’t. By testing his hypothesis first, he’d saved considerable time and money on a decision that was doomed to disaster.