Amongst the great questions of philosophy that have made their way into the classic-joke hall of fame is the following: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Personally, I think it’s because the wifi was better on the other side.
But jokes aside, there’s another question which is just as funny, but whose answers seem to be more rewarding: Why did the deer, who had started to cross the road, decide to stop in the middle and stare at the dazzling light speeding directly towards him?
The syndrome we affectionately refer to as “deer in the headlights” involves a question about indecision that affects very many organizations. The terms “indecision” and “indecisiveness” are occurring with increasing frequency and peaked in 2019 (we still don’t have enough data for 2020) in books indexed by Google’s Ngram. Anecdotally, the phrase “how to take decision” has been a constantly increasing request (in terms of total requests) since 2004 according to Google Trends.
The situation seems to find its beginnings in that paradoxical state in which we face an overabundance of information that is often contradictory. This is amplified through a particular feeling of anxiety over the fact that we know our decisions will be evaluated in the future based on information that is not currently available today.
Most managers identify with these situations where external and internal pressures oblige them to make decisions within fairly short time frames, using a partial or contradictory base of information, and in complex political, financial and competitive contexts.
Our world, particularly in North America, is skewed towards action. As the old adage goes, for every ten choices available, the only bad choice is not making one. But I would insist that this is partly false: The only “bad” choice is the one in which you aim to make a “good” decision. It is this expectation that precedes indecision. We need to get rid of ideas about “good” and “bad” as far as possible when the time comes to make decisions that, no matter what we do, will be evaluated in a future we cannot control and can hardly predict. On the other hand, we do need to evaluate whether our solutions are fair or correct. Correct given the information available at the time. And correct based on the aims and objectives we would like to prioritize.
“I take the position that I’m always to some degree wrong, and the aspiration is to be less wrong”
— Elon Musk, founder of X.com, Tesla and SpaceX
The first step when it comes to making a decision in an uncertain context is therefore being on the same page: The goal is not to be right (or to be good) but to be the least wrong possible (or to be as correct as possible). That changes everything, because then we can recognize that there are many potentially valid choices, not just one. In more emotional terms: Think about fear differently. You don’t need to be afraid to make decisions anymore once you understand that they all carry eventual risk. You need to work to reduce or manage this risk. Zero risk does not exist, after all. Getting out of the binary of “good” and “bad” choices is probably the smartest decision you’ll make and the one that should precede all strategic discussions.
“We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost.”
— Stephen Elop, CEO of Nokia (following Nokia’s defeat in the cellphone market and its necessary acquisition by Microsoft)
The second step consists of making choices that have the most potential of creating new choices in the future. A good strategy is one that creates options in the future. For example, if we hesitate between two technology development strategies, odds are one of them will create future opportunities, while the other’s only “advantage” is being relatively less risky to deploy.
Only luck can lead us to win a competition in which we have always chosen the least risky options. That’s practically a mathematical truth in a very large number of circumstances.
However, it may sometimes be hard to know if an option will create more options in the future. There are two elements that are generally guaranteed to provide superior returns over time: culture and data.
Like fine wine, good data improve over time. The same goes for company culture.
Some options create more interesting data than others. Some cultures promote certain positive behaviours more than do others.
When faced with several choices, I therefore almost always recommend taking the option that brings a small amount of cultural discomfort (and therefore some preparatory work), generates new categories of data (and therefore more work) and, overall, shows our future as potentially being more open tomorrow because of this initiative.
In concrete terms, you could also look at it this way: If you find making a decision to be difficult, that is also a symptom that your company culture is out of step with your choices, or that you don’t have enough data to guide your choices. You’re in this situation because, in the past, decisions were made that didn’t promote the development of your decision-making culture nor your proprietary data. In short, the constant here is that the decision-making culture aims to preserve the company as it is, to the detriment of its future flourishing.
So the greatest danger is not so much making the decision, but not going all the way with it. Managers will often try to manage situations in advance with extremely advanced strategic planning exercises in order to visualize and anticipate as far as possible what will result from an initiative. While I understand the need to plan for the resources you need to accomplish a project, the literature demonstrates that even after a few months have passed, many things will already have changed. The danger of that kind of planning is to make things so inflexible that any significant disruption runs the risk of, once again, triggering the company’s self-preservation instinct.
Inversely, by thinking first about the system in which the company is evolving as something complex and adaptive, you can define overall management principles and a cadence for meetings between stakeholders instead of precise tasks and arbitrary deadlines, leaving the different departments to distill these principles into their particular way of organizing their work.
Avoid creating too many inflexible parameters that will lead to projects being abandoned mid-stream, hold your course and trust in the intelligence of your teams, as well as a good dose of elbow grease, to get the job done. That’s the definition of agile culture. Hold your course and ensure collaboration at every managerial level. Resolve problems and adapt production following the strategic choices made within teams. On the same subject, many case studies demonstrate that employees make the best decisions and are more efficient when problems have been explained to them and their opinion is solicited, they are rewarded for their contribution to the solution based on their level, and they know that their recommendations will be applied!
In closing, remember that it’s more productive and realistic to search for the solution that is the least bad (or the most correct) instead of the one that is the best. All choices being equal, solutions that create new opportunities in the future should be given preference, in every case. And if good management requires projects to occasionally be abandoned, it also requires anticipating the fact that nothing ever works out like you planned. It’s better to organize your management so that it embraces potential difficulties and instabilities that may arise instead of organizing around following a plan created a few months or a year ago, despite the fact that many things have changed.