I’ve been thinking a lot about planning, decision-making, and execution lately. Okay, I always think a lot about those topics, but I’ve been thinking about them even more than usual.
You’ve no doubt heard someone — maybe me or Seth or other tributes to failure — encourage you to fail fast and fail often if you want to be a successful. Fear of failure keeps so many people from actually starting the projects that’ll lead to them succeeding. Since you have to start to finish and you have to finish to succeed, the fear of failing ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s become more obvious to me that that counsel also covers making bad decisions. It’s not just that you have to embrace making a good decision and having the failure come up in the execution, but, rather, you have to be prepared to make bad decisions in the first place.
Here’s the bottom-line: if you’re not making bad decisions, you’re not making enough decisions. (Tweet this.)
Part of the changemaking journey is learning to make decisions with incomplete information, time, and resources. What it takes practice to see is that, most of the time, more of those items actually don’t help the decision get made. In fact, they can make it harder to make the decisions that need to make, as more of them means you have more possibilities to work through.
There’s a big gap between the inputs — information, time, and resources — to your decision-making process and the output of that process. More experienced changemakers jump that gap quicker and usually with better success, and know how to tuck and roll and keep their eyes forward when they do make bad decisions.
As your work gains momentum, you’ll have to make more decisions precisely because its scope and visibility grows. If you haven’t worked your way through learning to make good decisions and recovering from bad ones when you’re starting out, it’s going to be much, much harder to make those decisions when people are watching and the decisions have a bigger impact.
At the same time that you’re disadvantaged by experience, perspective, and resources, you’re blessed by having a safer sandbox to make bad decisions. Would you rather make a bad decision when there are three people involved who know or when there are 300,000?
As much as we may not like it, we’re hard-wired to learn more from mistakes than we are from successes. A corollary to that is that we only learn to become successful by failing. Hence the “fail fast, fail often” thing.
Just in case this is all too theoretical, I’ll make it clear that you’ll:
- Hire the wrong teammate and then have to let them go
- Start using the wrong tech solutions over and over again as you learn which ones actually work
- Ally with the wrong partner and get burned
- Market a product, service, or event that no one (or almost no one) buys
- Talk to a big name and look like a fool
- Give a talk that doesn’t land
- Create what feels like 99 pieces of crap for 1 masterpiece
- Pay the wrong amount for taxes and have a bright, sunny, and cheerful mid-April day go dark very quickly
- Start a nine-month campaign and find out three months into it that it’s the wrong campaign
- [Insert whatever consequence of a bad decision that most stings you]
It’s not a rosy picture, I know, but I’d rather tell you the whole truth rather than just the pretty sides. Through my years of advising people, I’ve learned that the uglier truths that aren’t being shared cause more suffering and inaction because it’s so easy for people to assume that the inconvenient truths that are challenging them are doing so just because they’re inadequate or stupid. It’s not just you.
I’m obviously not encouraging you to willfully make bad decisions, nor am I encouraging you to not endeavor to get better at it. It just so happens that to get better at it, you have to be prepared to make some bad decisions.
A significant upshot to this that embracing the fact that you’ll make bad decisions will make it easier to decide early and often, which in turn will limit your decision fatigue significantly.
In the end, it can be hard to tell what’s a “bad” decision and what’s a “good” decision. In one slice of time or one perspective, things appear one way. In a later slice of time or different perspective, they appear a different way. “Never count a man happy until the end of his days,” the Greeks used to say, and the same truth applies here.
Think about a decision you’re stalled on right now. Do you need more inputs or do you just need to jump the gap already? Get real and get it done.
Torbjorn Rive says
Love it. This is inspiring because of an .. ummm .. shaky start to September for me. No bad decisions necessarily (cause I think it’s not about BAD or GOOD, perhaps just a timing issue). But I’ve been getting excited about things I’ve launched or initiated only to have them plateau much too quickly for my liking.
The month’s not over yet. Much work and bad decisions to make yet.
I think that we have been so bombarded by trying to avoid risk that most people think that means don’t make choices. The two are not the same. Risk are the seen and unseen factors towards the outcome that you desire. When you do your due diligence, educate yourself, learn about a subject, study and practice it, you figure out what risks are involved. The more you do, the more able you are to reduce the risks of having the choice turn out differently than you wanted.
Learning from your decisions often provides more experience and understanding in a single sitting than all the books on theory ever could. So make choices often, learn from them, and do better the next go around.
I don’t like to differentiate between good and bad risks because it gets very narrow minded. After all who decided what the good ones are and the bad ones? Isn’t that up to the individual to decide?
Archan Mehta says
Sometimes, in hindsight, you may be able to focus on the fact that your “good” decisions were actually “bad” decisions and vice versa is equally true. This has been my experience, but also the experience of countless people.
Suppose a guy graduates with a freshly-minted MBA from Harvard Business School. Everybody else in his class has joined Wall Street:working for an investment bank or consulting firm. After weighing the pros and cons–informational interviews, anyone?–the guy decides to join a blue-chip firm. After all, after several years, he can make partner and earn millions of dollars. However, he suddenly wakes up to the reality that he does not want to catch red-eye flights, work sixteen hours a day, and miss his son’s birthday for work.
It may be wiser to trust your instincts with incomplete information or with “complete” information. No matter what the perks and privileges, entrepreneurs don’t enjoy working for the man. Perhaps it would have been wiser for the Harvard grad to start his own company. Time is fleeting and life is short, so you need to be able to think on your feet. Being street smart means that you need to trust your gut and make decisions quickly and hit the ground running. Even if you make a bad decision, so what? When the Lord closes one door, He opens other doors too. We all make mistakes. Making decisions quickly means that you are working smart and expermenting and taking risks. It is surely better than not doing anything at all and resting on your laurels and brooding over your failures. Cheers.
Megan Elizabeth Morris says
This was a particularly relevant post for me, and I really appreciate that you made it.
Nailah Blades says
Great post! Thanks for shedding a light on the not so shiny parts – it really helps us to all understand that everyone is experiencing these things. Plus the title reminded me of Vince Vaughn in The Wedding Crashers: “Let’s get hopped up and make some bad decisions.”
Chuck Cordes says
I read this post for the first time about 5 months ago and since then I’ve thought about it often. Whenever I get to Hamleting about something, fretting about the potential downside, and then see a big chunk of time disappear, I realize it’s time to decide. Devil take the hindmost, as they used to say. You can’t know, least of all control, the future. But you can choose to try to make the best decision now. Thanks for this post. It’s been super helpful.