When I was working as a mission analyst on major aerospace systems, there was a sign that someone had posted on the wall that read, “There comes a time in every project when you must shoot the engineers and begin production.” This was a warning to the engineers, who always wanted to build the perfect system and would continue tweaking it as long as they could. This often was true of the analysts as well, myself included. We never had all the answers. We always wanted to do one more trade study. This was not only expensive, but it jeopardized the schedule. This was such a prevalent problem that folks developed an acronym for it (as aerospace folks are wont to do): T2SE (Time to Shoot the Engineers).
This is the same thing that happens to decision-makers. We often think, “If I spend a little more time on this decision, I’ll get all the information I need and be able to make an infallible decision,” or “I’m going to keep working on this until everybody is in full agreement on the right solution.”
Here is the sad truth.
- There is no such thing as an infallible decision.
- No one ever has all the information needed.
- No single decision will make everybody happy.
Repeat these to yourself until you internalize them. So many otherwise good decisions never took off because the decision-maker could never get enough information or consensus. Usually you won’t. That’s real life. Accept it.
The power of “good enough.”
Sir R. A. Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar, described how a “good enough” design led to a turning point in World War II. “The best design had to be rejected because it would never be achieved, and … the ‘second best’ would be achieved too late to be used by the armed forces when they needed it. The third best would be adequate and was available in time, and it was what won the Battle of Britain.”
The same is true of your decisions. A “good enough” decision acted on is better than a perfect decision that never comes. Part of the art of effective decision-making is determining how much time you’ll give yourself and your team to come to a conclusion. Many decisions, such as choosing a shirt to wear, can be made in a minute or so. Others, such as buying a house, moving to another city, taking a job, or getting married, need and deserve more time. A complex decision might take months. Here are some questions to help you set a reasonable deadline.
How much time does the decision deserve?
What are the possible consequences of the decision? What might change or go wrong that will affect the consequences? What is the potential payoff? What is the cost of a poor choice? How hard is it to back out? What will it cost to back out? Will there be future opportunities?
How much time does the decision need?
Do you have all the information you need to make an informed decision? If not, how long will it take to get it? Who else needs to give you input? How long will it take to get that input? Remember that you will never have all the information you need. Focus on the information that you can get readily and that drives the decision.
Will you need time to think, research, analyze, or discuss? I know it is trite, but for any significant decision I recommend you “sleep on it,” even if you’ve done a full analysis and come up with the answer. You’ll have a different viewpoint in the morning. See if your answer still looks good then. Allow yourself time to approach the question from several different perspectives, to look at it while wearing each of the Six Thinking Hats or to discuss it with people with a variety of thinking styles, backgrounds or expertise.
How much time does the decision allow?
Is there a hard deadline after which the opportunity will disappear? Is the decision a part of a series of tasks that will get hung up if you delay? Is somebody waiting for your answer? What is the cost of delay? Is there a first-mover advantage?
One of my colleagues recently submitted a proposal for a government contract. The deadline for submittal was noon on a certain day. The team worked on it steadily up until the last minute, getting it sent out at 11:45 am. Unfortunately, the deadline was noon East Coast time, and they sent it out at 11:45 California time. They missed the deadline by less than three hours and were ineligible. They may have had a phenomenal proposal, but nobody read it. Death by deadline.
Often, the deadline is not so obvious. Waiting merely has its costs. The risks include losing momentum, rudely making people wait, delaying subsequent tasks that have a hard deadline, missing opportunities, and delaying the benefits of the action, such as income. Ask yourself, “What do I lose by postponing the decision another day (or week, or month)? What do I gain?”
Decision day arrives
Effective decision-making is both art and science, but now the one thing you need is courage. Often I come to the deadline I’ve set for myself on a big decision, one based on dissatisfaction, opportunity, or goals, and think, “I can’t decide yet. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how it’s going to work out. I can’t get everybody to agree.” Then I have to remind myself that I’ll never have full knowledge or complete agreement, and, most of all, that I had promised myself to act at this time with whatever I have. This is what people are talking about when they praise a leader for being “decisive.” It’s choosing a direction and moving forward.
Did you ever find yourself hung up, spinning your wheels, waiting for the clouds to clear so you can move on? How did you get past it? Do you set decision deadlines for yourself?