Avoid Decision by Indecision

I recently wrote a piece about how Entrepreneurs Should be Respected, Not Loved.  The premise was that some leaders are too enamored with the approbation of their peers than making the tough decisions in the business that are bound to upset some people.

The corollary to this rule is “decision by indecision.”  This is one of my favorite lines to remind entrepreneurs because it is the sort of garden variety mistake that is so common in everyday life.  It is the anthesis of JFDI.  And I use it so often that my wife must be sick of hearing it.  But that’s mostly because it’s so prevalent.  It affects us all in everyday life.  Decisions by indecision are those where having not made up your mind early enough your options are constrained or gone altogether.

Let me give you some obvious examples.

  • You’re thinking about hiring an employee but you sit on the fence too long.  You make too many reference calls or want to see three more candidates before you decide.  They then decide to accept a job somewhere else or equally as likely they subtly lose confidence in the decision to join you.  Even if it is subconscious people get a sense that they’re not “the chosen one” and start to second guess joining you.  Recruiting is an emotional decision.  When you have the right candidate dithering can cost you.  It is a “decision by indecision” because the decision gets made for you.
  • You’re a VC.  Your’e thinking about investing in a company.  Your gut tells you that the team is great and that they’ve built something really valuable if they can get a bit more traction.  But you’re concerned about market acceptance or market size.  So you make four more reference calls.  You ask them to hit another milestone.  You bring them back for a third partners meeting.  In a world where they have no other options or they REALLY want to work with you, you’re fine but that’s not always the case.  The entrepreneurs subconsciously know you’re not convinced.  They begin to spend time on other options.
  • You’re a software company.  You can’t make the tough decision about whether you’re going to target enterprise clients or SMBs.  You hedge your bets by building some features they’ll both care about.  Your lack of focus means your product is good for both but great for neither.  Decision by indecision.  And you don’t even know it.  That’s the problem.
  • Working with a channel partner that isn’t performing?  Afraid to “upset the apple cart” by pulling your resources back from that partner and spending time elsewhere? Or having the tough conversations with their senior leadership to say why you can’t continue to allocate resource?  Decision.
  • Should we delay raising money even though we might take more dilution because we haven’t hit our milestones?  Decision.
  • You don’t register for a conference by the “early bird” date because you weren’t sure if you wanted to go.  Decision.

In each of these cases there is no right or wrong answer about which path you should take.  But I’m a big believer in making EXPLICIT decisions.  Have a point-of-view and take the actual hard road of saying, “here is what I’ve decided.”  Maybe it’s to hire the employee or maybe it’s to explicitly pass.  Or maybe it’s even to spend more time referencing them but then be explicit that this decision may lead to losing the option to hire the employee.  That’s an acceptable decision.  You’ve decided to take on more risk in the hiring process in exchange for having more data points because you’re not yet convinced.

To me the sin is having the decision implicitly made for you.  The weakness is not having conviction.  And as I stated previously in this post, decisiveness is one of the most important characteristics of an entrepreneur.  You won’t always be right.  But if you’re right 70% of the time and correct when you make mistakes you’ll always be better off making the early calls.  Avoid deciding through indecision.  Don’t let outcomes happen to you by default.

 

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    Classic coaching – you'd rather have 2 of your guys scrambling for a loose ball than everyone standing around flat-footed.

    I'd say this goes for your employees, too. In a startup, you want entrepreneurial employees who are encouraged to go above and beyond. Exercise enough trust that they can take risks and make their own decisions, instead of constantly waiting for permission.

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    Classic coaching – you'd rather have 2 of your guys scrambling for a loose ball than everyone standing around flat-footed.

    I'd say this goes for your employees, too. In a startup, you want entrepreneurial employees who are encouraged to go above and beyond. Exercise enough trust that they can take risks and make their own decisions, instead of constantly waiting for permission.

  • http://www.twitter.com/biggiesu Mike Su

    Great post. Though I've also seen people who mistake being extremely decisive for great leadership. Often you can tell those people who try to mask their insecurity by being decisive because they are the ones who make the decision and stand by that decision regardless of new information. This I think is just as dangerous as indecision, as they quickly make decisions, often with incomplete information, and are unwilling to change direction even when new information comes to light that may prove their earlier decision wrong for fear of seeming indecisive. Our previous president comes to mind.

  • http://www.twitter.com/biggiesu Mike Su

    Great post. Though I've also seen people who mistake being extremely decisive for great leadership. Often you can tell those people who try to mask their insecurity by being decisive because they are the ones who make the decision and stand by that decision regardless of new information. This I think is just as dangerous as indecision, as they quickly make decisions, often with incomplete information, and are unwilling to change direction even when new information comes to light that may prove their earlier decision wrong for fear of seeming indecisive. Our previous president comes to mind.

  • http://starttowonder.blogspot.com sjain

    I think those who are indecisive by nature should read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

  • http://starttowonder.blogspot.com SJain

    I think those who are indecisive by nature should read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

  • http://hbookmark.com/twitscoop Pete

    “But I’m a big believer in making EXPLICIT decisions” >> spot on, fully agree
    Great post, bookmarked!

  • http://hbookmark.com/twitscoop Pete

    “But I’m a big believer in making EXPLICIT decisions” >> spot on, fully agree
    Great post, bookmarked!

  • Jonathan

    You are definitely preaching to the choir here. However, I have a question about this situation/symptom. I am an aspiring ambitious entrepreneur incubating under the wings of another more seasoned entrepreneur. I see this indecision or lack of conviction more now and I am concerned about how this will disrupt our execution.

    I would welcome some insight you have on how a subordinate to a seasoned entrepreneurial veteran could shed light on this.

  • Jonathan

    You are definitely preaching to the choir here. However, I have a question about this situation/symptom. I am an aspiring ambitious entrepreneur incubating under the wings of another more seasoned entrepreneur. I see this indecision or lack of conviction more now and I am concerned about how this will disrupt our execution.

    I would welcome some insight you have on how a subordinate to a seasoned entrepreneurial veteran could shed light on this.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. When I read your first few sentences I was thinking of “The Decider.” I'm not for that at all. I don't mind time, reflection and analysis. But people need to be aware when decisions are made implicitly. Perfect example is when people were looting in Iraq in the early days of the war. Our lack of decision on what to do seemed to create a lawlessness that became hard to combat.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. When I read your first few sentences I was thinking of “The Decider.” I'm not for that at all. I don't mind time, reflection and analysis. But people need to be aware when decisions are made implicitly. Perfect example is when people were looting in Iraq in the early days of the war. Our lack of decision on what to do seemed to create a lawlessness that became hard to combat.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'm so about Blink. Thanks for brining it up. More information does not always equal a better decision. Especially about people.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'm so about Blink. Thanks for brining it up. More information does not always equal a better decision. Especially about people.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Through persuasion. Spend time with your colleague and talk them through the decisions not being made. Ask for his / her rationale in a non judgmental way. Say you want to learn. Maybe there is more to the non decision than you think. Maybe not. But silence solves nothing.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Through persuasion. Spend time with your colleague and talk them through the decisions not being made. Ask for his / her rationale in a non judgmental way. Say you want to learn. Maybe there is more to the non decision than you think. Maybe not. But silence solves nothing.

  • http://jgellas.blogspot.com Jim Gellas

    Great blog post! Thanks. I see this all too frequently. It reminds me of a line from Days of Thunder where the characters are talking about “Japanese Inspection.” “When they receive a shipment of lettuce they're not sure about they let it sit on the docks until they're ready to look at it. By then the lettuce has become rotten…” and the decision has been made.

    I think way too many people default to this decision making process. Thanks for the reminder, Mark!

  • http://jgellas.blogspot.com Jim Gellas

    Great blog post! Thanks. I see this all too frequently. It reminds me of a line from Days of Thunder where the characters are talking about “Japanese Inspection.” “When they receive a shipment of lettuce they're not sure about they let it sit on the docks until they're ready to look at it. By then the lettuce has become rotten…” and the decision has been made.

    I think way too many people default to this decision making process. Thanks for the reminder, Mark!

  • edloessi

    Mark,

    Great advice especially;

    To me the sin is having the decision implicitly made for you

    I've had direct experience here were second guessing decisions after many years of not doing so led to the very quick demise of a company were circumstances quickly became the decision maker, and circumstance is no ones friend :)

    Thanks,

    Ed Loessi

    http://www.twitter.com/edloessi
    http://www.rapidinfluence.com

  • edloessi

    Mark,

    Great advice especially;

    To me the sin is having the decision implicitly made for you

    I've had direct experience here were second guessing decisions after many years of not doing so led to the very quick demise of a company were circumstances quickly became the decision maker, and circumstance is no ones friend :)

    Thanks,

    Ed Loessi

    http://www.twitter.com/edloessi
    http://www.rapidinfluence.com

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    Even proverbs give conflicting advice on this one:

    Strike while the iron's hot. Make hay while the sun shines.

    Look before you leap. Only fools rush in.

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    Even proverbs give conflicting advice on this one:

    Strike while the iron's hot. Make hay while the sun shines.

    Look before you leap. Only fools rush in.

  • http://twitter.com/dayski Kapil Bharati

    As long as it is a conscious decision to not take a decision, it makes sense. There are times when wait and watch is the best option … Running a startup – you have plenty of decisions to make, some small and some with a big impact – it boils down to effective prioritization of tasks. One of my managers in the past introduced me to the concept of 3Ds – Decide, Delegate or Delete … it works well for me!

  • dayski

    As long as it is a conscious decision to not take a decision, it makes sense. There are times when wait and watch is the best option … Running a startup – you have plenty of decisions to make, some small and some with a big impact – it boils down to effective prioritization of tasks. One of my managers in the past introduced me to the concept of 3Ds – Decide, Delegate or Delete … it works well for me!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    For me it's OK to “not decide” but if that's your decision make it consciously! It's “decision by indecision” that I rebel against. Delayed decisions are not necessarily that.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    For me it's OK to “not decide” but if that's your decision make it consciously! It's “decision by indecision” that I rebel against. Delayed decisions are not necessarily that.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agree 100%. Deciding not to decide is acceptable. Not deciding is not. Word parsing, but true.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agree 100%. Deciding not to decide is acceptable. Not deciding is not. Word parsing, but true.

  • http://www.roadtofailure.com lusciouspear

    I can't tell you how many companies I've been at where this is the norm — even 40 person startups. I don't have a life to waste doing it. Two years to prototype something that's three months worth of code, because of all the indecision.

    One of the folks I hired said, “You kind of piss off a lot of people here, but you're also the only one capable of making a decision.”

    He's now my co-founder :)

  • http://www.roadtofailure.com lusciouspear

    I can't tell you how many companies I've been at where this is the norm — even 40 person startups. I don't have a life to waste doing it. Two years to prototype something that's three months worth of code, because of all the indecision.

    One of the folks I hired said, “You kind of piss off a lot of people here, but you're also the only one capable of making a decision.”

    He's now my co-founder :)

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    Another good post Mark,

    I have to agree that being decisive is such an important factor, your business will become to slow when you don't decide, and you can be guaranteed that the right decisions won't be made if your main decision is to procrastinate and not to choose. As you said the indecision is your choice.

    Another point to go along with making Explicit decisions is that it both shows your confidence and knowledge in an area. The whole idea behind, “Doing Your Homework”. If you thoroughly know your field, know your plan, etc. Then making a decision should be explicit. You know who you need and for what choice so you hire the right person when they arrive. Etc etc.

    I'm not saying anything you don't already know, but I thought i'd share.

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    Another good post Mark,

    I have to agree that being decisive is such an important factor, your business will become to slow when you don't decide, and you can be guaranteed that the right decisions won't be made if your main decision is to procrastinate and not to choose. As you said the indecision is your choice.

    Another point to go along with making Explicit decisions is that it both shows your confidence and knowledge in an area. The whole idea behind, “Doing Your Homework”. If you thoroughly know your field, know your plan, etc. Then making a decision should be explicit. You know who you need and for what choice so you hire the right person when they arrive. Etc etc.

    I'm not saying anything you don't already know, but I thought i'd share.

  • vinhkhoa

    I sometimes find the first feeling is the best one. I come across quite a number of cases where I sort of make decisions already, but want to look around for a bit more info and finally end up back to my first decision. It is lucky to be able to come back to it, sometimes I would have missed it already for not doing it when I had the chance.

    Thanks for the article.

  • vinhkhoa

    I sometimes find the first feeling is the best one. I come across quite a number of cases where I sort of make decisions already, but want to look around for a bit more info and finally end up back to my first decision. It is lucky to be able to come back to it, sometimes I would have missed it already for not doing it when I had the chance.

    Thanks for the article.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That's the premise behind Gladwell's book, “Blink.” If you haven't read it you should.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That's the premise behind Gladwell's book, “Blink.” If you haven't read it you should.

  • vinhkhoa

    Bought the book. Look like a very interesting idea/research there.

    Thanks Mark.

    http://vinhkhoa.com/

  • vinhkhoa

    Bought the book. Look like a very interesting idea/research there.

    Thanks Mark.

    http://vinhkhoa.com/

  • MITDGreenb

    There's an old riddle that goes like this: Why do good managers make a lot more bad decisions than bad managers?

    Because bad managers fail to make decisions at all.

  • MITDGreenb

    There's an old riddle that goes like this: Why do good managers make a lot more bad decisions than bad managers?

    Because bad managers fail to make decisions at all.

  • http://argylesocial.com/ Eric Boggs

    “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

    - Geddy Lee, Rush
    - Freewill
    - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpCASVFyQoE

  • http://argylesocial.com/ Eric Boggs

    “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

    - Geddy Lee, Rush
    - Freewill
    - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpCASVFyQoE

  • http://twitter.com/davidscoville davidscoville

    Great words here. Decision is key, even to basic life decisions (relationships, religion, community involvement, etc.).

    Thank you for the enlightenment. I needed to read this.

  • http://twitter.com/davidscoville davidscoville

    Great words here. Decision is key, even to basic life decisions (relationships, religion, community involvement, etc.).

    Thank you for the enlightenment. I needed to read this.

  • mcgarty

    Great post. I wouldn't call it the anthesis of JFDI–it's JFD where D=decide.