“Focus less on making the right decision and more on what it will take to make the decision right.”

The grammar might be a bit awkward, but this is a re-framing, mind-expanding comment I’ve been using a lot lately to help my entrepreneurial clients work through big decisions more quickly, with more clarity, and with more conviction.

 The mantra originates from a talk Scott McNealy, a co-founder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems, gave at Stanford many many years ago. My coach Ed Batista was sitting in the audience that afternoon and Scott’s words stuck with him for over a decade inspiring this post where Ed talks about he applies “make the decision right” to his coaching.  (I encourage you to read Ed’s HBR post as it forms the basis for how I use this perspective  in my own coaching.)

With respect to the wisdom of Scott and Ed that precedes me, I’d like to take this “Make the Decision Right” approach one step further and apply it for early-stage entrepreneurs and founders who face daily pressure to make decisions and rarely feel like they have the time or luxury to ever make a “wrong” decision.

 

The Pressure to Make the Right Decision

This is usually what it looks like: My client shows up or calls me up with a big hairy startup decision in front of them. It might be a go/no-go decision or it might be choosing between two or three options that seem equally compelling, risky and scary. Either way, the stakes feel big and, oh yeah, they have some ridiculously short amount of time (sometimes days, sometimes hours) to make said decision.

To give you a sense of what kinds of decisions I am talking about, here are a few generalized-but-still-very-real examples:

  • We only have enough marketing budget to cover us for one launch campaign with one target client: Which customer segment should we focus on for our launch?
  •  The feedback from my first round of product tests has been incredibly positive: Do I quit my full-time job now to pursue this start-up full-time or do I continue to refine the product at nights and on weekends?
  •  One of my senior team members is falling short in his performance, but we are at a critical juncture right now and I’m not sure if now is the right time to make changes to the team: Do I fire him now or later?
  •  We have three months of cash left in the bank and our current raise is not going well: Do I stay the course and keep my team focused on their current business priorities or do I make a radical change to shift the team/company towards an image that investors might find more attractive?

While each case and each entrepreneur is wildly different, they all share a common yearning to make the right decision. And, as the pressure mounts, they fall into either a deeper paralysis or a more hyperactive form of agonizing over pros, cons, details and tradeoffs. That’s when I tell them:

There is No Right Decision. Ever. Especially When You’re Doing Something Radically New.

Most entrepreneurs get that on some level. Certainly, if what they were about to do had been done before and the right step-by-step approach documented in a textbook, then there would be no market opportunity. But then does that mean they just flip a coin? No.

Instead, of paralyzing or hyper-agonizing over making the “right” decision—you focus your decision-making energy on evaluating what it would take to make a certain decision the right one over a set time period.

Strategically: This requires you to imagine the future, think through scenarios, identify what you can and cannot influence and more critically contrast two (or more) scenarios of how the future could unfold.

Tactically: this means creating a simple table where you:

  1. Identify and articulate what decisions you are truly considering (column headers)
  2. List out the key factors that could influence whether or not a given decision turns out to be the right one (row titles)
  3. Walk through each factor for each decision and write some brief notes about what it would take to make it right (filling out all the cells in the table) The notes could include: actions you’d need to take, lucky breaks you’d need to get, assumptions that would need to prove true, etc.

 

What Happens When You Focus on Making a Decision Right

 When I use this framework with the founders I coach, a few useful things tend to happen:

1) The exercise brings your emotions and intuitive leaps to the foreground so you can make a more conscious choice about whether to follow them or manage them differently. I once had a client who physically snarled or rolled her eyes as we were talking through the different aspects of how she would make “column B” become the right choice. That reaction helped us to focus on what her biggest fear/source of indecision was and she was able to make the decision much more quickly after having that awareness.

2) The process of adding rows helps you to consider other factors that will influence how a particular decision will (or won’t) prove to be the right one over time. Which rows were you able to list out easily because they are the ones you are most hung up on? Which ones had you forgotten about? As you think through them, which ones are you finding will count more? Which ones can you influence and which ones are completely outside your control? This helps you to think about risk mitigation and where you feel more comfortable tolerating uncertainty and where you might not.

3) There might come a point at which you want to fill out a specific row for a certain column but you realize there is a big gap in your knowledge that makes it impossible to answer it. I have clients who realize that they were making a big assumption about how a particular choice would unfold or they don’t understand how a particular choice would convert into action and execution. At those points, they have a clear action item: “Talk to X later today to get clarity on what it would take to do Y.” The key distinction here is that you’re not talking to X to get his or her opinion on whether you should do Y—you only want to engage him/her in a creative/problem-solve-y way to help you think through how you would do it.

And in the end, one of three important things will happen:

1) Ambivalence falls away. Sometimes, even before you’ve completed the whole table, you realize that the path towards “making option B become the right one” is the one that makes the most sense for your team and the one you most want to pursue. You realize exactly why option A was getting you all twisted up, and you’ve already identified the actions you can take to further improve your chances that option B, once you pick it, will become the right one.

2) Your next steps towards making the decision are much clearer. Sometimes it’s still not clear if you want to move forward on A or B, but you conclude the exercise with a much more manageable/actionable list of questions to get information on and move towards a decision. These questions will help you to engage others (teammates, advisors, customers, etc) in ways that will invite problem-solving help without asking for “general opinions” that can come across quite convincingly, but aren’t going to be as helpful. For example, if the key marketing activity under Option B is “pursue distribution partner deals” it will be more useful to you to ask your marketing advisor: “What would it take to sign a deal with a distribution partner over the next 3 months?” vs. “Should we sign a deal with a distribution partner?” The first invites both creative and tactical thinking. The latter is more likely to invite opinion and projection.

3) You uncover an even better option. You realize that you can combine the two columns in a clever way that you hadn’t initially seen upfront when they seemed like such different approaches. Or, in the process of uncovering what rows are important to you, you end up coming up with a new choice option (a third column) and then decide to move forward on that instead.

At the end of the day, this exercise is a table or an organized list—and I did hint earlier that endless list-making might be a sign of hyper-active analysis—-so why is this exercise more effective than a good ole’ fashioned pro-con list?

Focusing on what it will take to make the decision right is proactive, not reactive. It opens up possibilities, gets you to think more creatively.

And it’s more accurate! The startup life is inherently dynamic, so regardless of what you decide or whether you decide anything at all, the market will still change and your team will still change in ways you could never predict. You cannot control the future so why pretend like you can? Yes—you can take steps to mitigate known risks and try to anticipate unknown ones. That can be useful to a point. But to give yourself false hope that you could actually pick the right decision upfront will be a waste of precious time and energy that would be better spent working furiously to make your choice become the right one in the end.

So, try it. Today.

What will it take to make your decision the right one? 

And then go do it.