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Paradox of Indecision

December 4, 2008

Here’s a thought on decision making.   Be decisive.  Don’t be indecisive (unless it’s advantageous to you.)  When faced with a decision you can:

  1. Make the right decision
  2. Make the wrong decision
  3. Make no decision

Most of the time you are better off making a decision and the acting, particularly on day to day, small stakes decisions.  Why is indecision so dangerous?  Because indecision doesn’t offer a learning experience.  If you make the right decision, you know what to do next time.  If you make the wrong decision, you know what not to do next time.  It is the iterative learning process of analyzing past decisions that make future judgment better.

This is the fundamental reason why experienced professionals are better decision makers than young, overeager professionals.  They’ve had more time to make more decisions (good and bad.)  Any seasoned professional will tell you that she learned more from her wrong decisions.  That’s why it’s ok to make (some) wrong decisions.  But, keep in mind knowledge workers are in the decision making business, and we need to be awesome at it. Wrong decisions shouldn’t be embraced; they should be analyzed and corrected.  Right decisions should be celebrated.  Indecision should be disparaged.   Sadly, indecision is the modus operandi of many–not all–middle managers in large companies.  (A synonym for indecision is ‘job security.’)

Decision making isn’t “guessing.” Decisions (even small ones with small impact) should be made methodically and analytically.  There should be no tolerance for “shoot from the hip”, “flavor of the month” judgments.  To learn how to make big decisions well, you need to employ the same rigorous process for small ones.  That’s how you learn.  Again, decision making isn’t guessing.  A lot of people celebrate learning from mistakes that happened because they recklessly guessed.  Don’t be one of those people.  Don’t celebrate a mistake.  Learn from it.  There is nothing celebratory about losing money, making a bad hire, losing a client, or missing a big opportunity.

Here is a caveat.   It’s not always best to just make decisions for the sake of learning or to indulge in a curiosity.   If you are making a big decision that impacts the lives of employees or your company’s short term solvency and long term potential, than sometimes indecision is the right way to go–until you have gathered the necessary information and are highly confident you are making the right decision.  A wrong decision isn’t a tolerable choice when the stakes are huge.

Clay Mathile (the former owner of the Iams Company which he sold to P&G for $2.3 billion) writes about how indecision served him well for his biggest and most important decisions.  He writes in Dream No Little Dreams:

Ironically, a good decision maker must be comfortable with indecision. Entrepreneurs are famous for being overeager gunslingers, but…I learned it’s okay to never make a decision before you have to.  Haste makes waste in most areas of life, but when the future of an entire company…hinges on a key decision, haste can wreak not only waste but total devastation.”

–Clay Mathile

Summary:

  1. Knowledge workers get paid to make decisions, and must be good at it.
  2. Be decisive and start now.
  3. Be rigorous about the decisions you make and never guess.
  4. Dont’ celebrate mistakes, learn from them.
  5. Big decisions often require indecision.  You aren’t a loser if you struggle to make a big decision.  If you are being consciously indecisive as you collect more information, you will probably have a higher probability of making the right decision when the time comes.
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