“Which is better? To take action and perhaps make a fatal mistake – or to take no action and die slowly anyway?” Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love
When Lou Gerstner took the helm of IBM in the depths of its despair in 1993 he was widely lambasted by the business press for saying the last thing the company needed right then was a strategy. On closer inspection, what he actually said was not that they didn’t need a strategy, but that they didn’t need any more strategies – that the company’s problem lay not in their ability to develop great strategies, but in their willingness to choose one and implement it. In other words, they needed to do less talking about it and more getting on with it. Gerstner stopped talking, started doing and famously reinvented Big Blue. And in his actions, rather than his words, lies a moral for us all.
Very few strategies or ideas are unique, yet many have the possibility of being enormously effective through smart, efficient and effective execution. Yet even the greatest strategy is nothing without the courage and ability to implement it.
Whole industries have sprung up to try and de-risk this process and to reassure leaders of the solidity of their thinking before they begin to execute. However, all the research studies in the world cannot remove the inevitable risks the leader must take for a project to be successful. Indeed, the search for the removal of risk more often than not leads to mediocrity.
How often do we find ourselves looking back on a project and feeling that it in some way fell short of its initial lofty ambitions? Was it the wrong strategy or did we lack the courage and skill to make that strategy a reality? Things only get tough when they get real. It’s not possible to fail when writing a PowerPoint presentation (at least it’s quite difficult to), yet as soon as you move to execution every step can feel like navigating a minefield. Here visible failure can feel only too close at hand. This is the all-too-real challenge of execution that many organisations and cultures do not do enough to understand and mitigate.
It’s easy to parrot the old cliché, ‘It’s okay to fail’, but how often is that true? Great execution requires intelligence, teamwork, energy and perseverance. Most of all, however, it requires an effective decision-making culture which, as is always the case, must be led from the top.
Bringing strategy to life is about making decisions. Nobody who either is, or aspires to be, in a leadership position is going to admit that they are bad at this, but as everyone knows from their own personal experience, many are. To succeed as a leader you must ensure that effective decision-making is both your personal priority and baked into your cultural agenda, whether you run a corporate multinational or a Sunday league sports team.
The one thing nobody can help you with is which option to choose. For that you must rely on your and your team’s intelligence, judgement and experience. What you can do is ensure you build a team that has a confident and capable decision-making culture.
DECIDE TO DECIDE
It seems kind of obvious, but this is the most important step. Tell yourself that through your actions you will ensure that decision-making is right at the top of your to-do list. Really – it can be that simple. Everybody takes decisions all the time, after all. The question is: are you focusing on the right ones? Are you getting the right balance between the important and the urgent, between thinking and doing?
Are you seen to be decisive by those around you – effective teams must believe they have effective decision-makers leading them. Are you making sure that each decision is passed as far down the organisational structure as possible – more of an art than a science, but crucial to ensure an empowered, nimble culture.
There’s a lot in that short paragraph, but you’ll note there’s nothing about being right or wrong. Despite the decision-making prevarication that often exists in organisations, rarely can outcomes be considered in terms of right and wrong – and people being annoyed, even lots of people being annoyed, is definitely not a reliable measure of whether you made the right call or not. Ultimately the only question should be: Did it take us closer to (or further away from) our goal? What I can say with certainty is the most wrong you can be is to not take decisions at all.
Decision-making is so often just taken for granted, but equally often it is done poorly, not thought about and not discussed. The key task for a leader is to ensure they and their team are aware that effective decision-making is an important part of the culture they want to create, and that it’s firmly (and consciously) on their collective to-do list.
STAY TRUE TO COLIN POWELL’S 40/70 RULE
Only a foolish or irresponsible person would fail to agonise and fret over big and important decisions; leaders are aware not only of their own mortality, but also of the responsibility they bear for those in their teams. Most leaders, in my experience, feel this responsibility very keenly.
If a decision is clear and obvious then it’s easy to implement; similarly if the implications of the decision are of no consequence. However, many decisions do have a measurable consequence and yet are not clear-cut. The problem that many responsible and well-informed leaders face, therefore, is paralysis in the face of what appear to be a series of big 50:50 calls. A leader’s task is often further complicated by each side of the argument having well-intentioned advocates pressing its case (or more commonly the dangers of a misstep).
It’s worth remembering here Colin Powell’s 40/70 rule: Don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you a less than 40% chance of being right, but if you have waited until you’re more than 70% certain then you have waited too long.
Don’t act in haste, he says, but don’t wait too long. However, this dictum can be read another way: that it is more desirable to act quickly and risk error than to wait too long and be wrong by default. Powell asks leaders to accept the possibility of error, but to get on with it anyway.
Decision-making must be reframed to include a fear of not making enough decisions quickly enough. This is ultimately the most liberating way to deal with decision-fear and to change your and your team’s understanding of the decision-making process.
The leader should reframe their team’s behaviour (and therefore culture) so that their ‘fear’ is based not on whether decisions are right or wrong, but rather on the far greater implications of not making decisions at all. A smart, execution-focused leader fears a lack of decision-making more than they do the fear of getting some of those decisions wrong. This can initially sound a little cavalier, but it is in my mind incontrovertible.
Firstly, any culture that prioritises fear of error over prompt action will ultimately become a slow, stodgy and dependent culture. Secondly, it is futile. Everybody and all teams get stuff wrong. Often, it is not even clear after the event that there ever was a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – just a series of different options, each one giving way to others. Acceptance that mistakes are inevitable and that uncertainty is a constant is the liberating place you want your team to get to. To steal a phrase, feel the fear and do it anyway.
And in truth – once you begin, it rapidly feels less scary. It just becomes normal. Nothing breeds a team’s confidence like forward progress, and conversely, nothing destroys it like the inertia of slow indecisiveness.
A leader’s (and a team’s) anxieties and inefficiencies around decision-making must be reframed from a fear of getting individual decisions wrong to a fear of making too few. This is achieved through the acceptance of the inevitability of error and a realisation that the worst mistake you can make is not making enough decisions quickly enough. This is a liberating place to be.
THE MOST WRONG YOU CAN BE IS TO NOT TAKE ENOUGH DECISIONS
Finally, let’s consider how much is really at stake. Indecisiveness is an individual’s reluctance to choose a path when presented with two or more options. Psychologists talk of loss aversion, which helps us better understand this phenomenon.
First described by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (the subject of a fabulous Michael Lewis book, The Undoing Project), loss aversion is people’s tendency to prefer to avoid a loss than make a gain. In simple terms, people choose not losing a dollar over finding a dollar. Those paralysed by decision-fear often prevaricate to avoid a perceived loss, rather than act in order to gain.
Sometimes, the decisions we must make are huge. None of us will ever experience the terrible and unenviable pressures Eisenhower faced as head of Allied forces in Europe before he gave the final go-ahead to launch the D-Day invasion in June 1944. For us mere mortals, that was a scale of decision well beyond the more modest scope of this book and, I can safely say, beyond the experience of virtually every living human today.
For the rest of us, how high are the stakes? Of course, they can sometimes seem quite high indeed, but we have to be honest with ourselves when we ask – just how high? Jeff Bezos talks about decisions being either one-way or two-way doors. The analogy is obvious. In practice, many of the decisions we take are two-way doors.
Let’s be realistic. The biggest issue around decision-making is our natural hesitancy to make mistakes, to get it wrong. But getting stuff wrong isn’t failing, it’s just getting one decision wrong, and it’s often not obvious what is wrong and what is right anyway.
Ultimately, very few decisions are irreversible, so live by the motto: Try it. If it doesn’t work, fix it.
No Bullshit Leadership by Chris Hirst is published by Profile Books Ltd and available here