Management A privilege of leadership

Ok. So, You Can’t Decide.

Even if you’ve checked your work, asked for all the help, and are moving gingerly, there will be decisions where you can’t decide. You’ve considered and reconsidered your pro/con lists, you’ve had endless debates with informed humans, but you remain mentally paralyzed.

I have an observation regarding this paralysis, and then advice.

First, the paralysis might mean you’re subconsciously aware you’ve missed an essential aspect of the decision, and your brain isn’t letting you decide until you mentally uncover this essential information.

In all your research, conversation, and deliberation, you’ve not found the obvious answer. Worse, you’ve discovered a whisper of a hint there is something important yet to be discovered, and that discovery might push your decision one direction or the other.

This is a subtle slippery mindset. It’s a convenient excuse for the decision impaired. It allows us to stall even longer, but in my experience, the whisper of a hint is experiencing speaking… quietly.

In this situation, I need a very long bike ride. There is no additional conversation that needs to occur. A whiteboard is not going to help. I need to push the entire situation to the very back of my brain. I need to stick it back there where the wild things are because, in this situation, they know better than I.

Maybe you don’t bike. Ok, what is your deep consideration activity? Where do you find random thoughts and inspiration outside of the shower? Do that for as long as is necessary and see what you discover. Don’t force it, just put yourself into deep consideration and see what happens.

Or maybe…

You just need to decide.

Having been through a great many hard decisions, there are two distinct moods around the decision. The great debate before the decision and then the great relief after the decision.

The defining characteristic of the great relief is the sense of immediate progress. After days or weeks of careful analysis, you are suddenly moving forward again and… it’s a delightful relief. You are no longer stuck endlessly second-guessing yourself.

Remember when you accepted the job offer? Remember when you bought the new car? Remember what it felt like the moment after you said “Yes” to the company or signed on the dotted line? A weight is immediately lifted, “Ok, this is happening.”

You instantly become mentally limber. What was an infinitely complicated and unmeasurable set of interrelated pros and cons has now become work. Chances are the decision is so fresh that you have no idea whether it was the right decision or not, but you don’t care because you are no longer stuck. Even if unexpected consequences begin to show up, you eagerly attack them because consequences are more fun than mental paralysis.

Yeah… yeah. I am reluctantly suggesting that the move is sometimes to just yolo decide. There is a real risk here, but if you’ve built yourself a formidable mental block, you’re wasting precious time swirling around your head and it’s time to make forward progress.

A profound change of perspective follows making a decision. It’s no longer theoretical; it’s happening. You are doing something as opposed to talking about doing something. Even better, as potential consequences begin to arrive, you gather initial essential data on the quality of your decision. Remember that aspect of the decision you thought was critical? Yeah, now that the decision is in the wild, you see it is irrelevant. And that allegedly irrelevant detail? Yeah, now it’s loudly and painfully essential. Whoops.

It’s frustrating when the early reactions arrive, and you realize all your forecasting work only provided half of the essential data. Your frustration is doubled when the “I Told You So” humans show up to remind you that you ignored a critical part of their counsel. Ignored is the fact that we only know the critical role of their counsel because your decision revealed the importance.

Yes, some humans are naturally talented at decision forecasting, but there is a critical difference between those critics and you. They sit at a professional, comfortable distance from the decision. They are mostly immune to the consequences, which gives them mental comfort.

Meanwhile, you are accountable for this decision, and, once again, I’ll remind you that most humans believe accountability means responsibility. What it means is “required or expected to justify actions and decisions.” To give account.

The decision you made is entirely yours, and while the work preceding a hard decision can feel like an immense and endless chore, decisions and their subsequent consequences are, in fact, a privilege of leadership.

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8 Responses

  1. CdrJameson 3 months ago

    Or maybe you should just have a shower, if that’s where the deep thoughts live. No need to rule that one out.

  2. Sye van der Veen 3 months ago

    > you’re wasting precious time swirling any our head

    Should that be “around your head”?

  3. Have you heard the short Alan Watts story about the “Chinese Farmer?”

    There are a few YouTube videos that feature Watts describing the situation.

    In my view, we can’t really know if any decision we make is ultimately going to be to our benefit or not. The message I take away from that is to not become too attached to decisions and hoped-for outcomes.

  4. Evan J 3 months ago

    I really like this appraoch to high unwind cost binary decisions…I’ve also found that for non-binary decisions iterative decision followed by action followed by another small decision works amazing in both software and life. Eg. should I build out perfect customizable and mega fast ecommerce functionality? To start, you can use some prebuild solution…and improve on that should the project show promising demand signals.

    In life, maybe you’re not sure if you should still be in a relationship with someone, you can try and arrange a potentially stressful trip to see how you’d both interact in your worst moments.

  5. Flimm 3 months ago

    Sometimes, all I need to decide is the next action step.

    A good leader may deliberately postpone a decision because there is no need to make the decision now. In that case, the leader should communicate to everyone that the decision is postponed deliberately, and that will set some minds at ease.

  6. Frederico Zica 3 months ago

    Wow. This sounds so akin to my experience. Feels like you are unpacking mental processes here. Nicely written!

  7. Joe T. 2 months ago

    To the second point, there are a lot of situations where the value of making a decision and being able to begin “doing something as opposed to talking about doing something”, is greater than the incremental value of the perfect solution left over after the cost of continuing to debate until you reach it — even if you end up needing to backtrack and start over with what it becomes apparent is a better option than the one you decided on. The confidence to do a quick pivot to an option you now *know* is better is immensely valuable.

    And pivoting itself may not have as much value as one thinks. In _Mathematical Carnival_, Martin Gardner has a chapter called “Calculating Prodigies”, about the people who engaged in the fad of doing complex arithmetic and other mathematical feats in their heads on demand. One of them is quoted as saying that an absolutely critical part of the process is to decide on the best strategy instantly once the calculation is known, *and then stick to it till the end*, even if a method that would have better in retrospect occurs to one partway through, because the time spent redoing already-done calculations outweighs the amount of time saved. Likewise the not-perfect product or feature that hits the market weeks or months earlier and can begin generating revenue may still outperform the perfect but delayed product over a realistic time horizon.