Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Don’t Let the Quest for Perfection Delay Decision

Executive Summary:
Don’t fail to make a timely decision because you are caught up trying to make the perfect decision.  Make a good decision and move on.

The Rest of the Story:
In my experience, the single greatest source of waste in most businesses, particularly in the office environment, is the phenomenon of indecision.  At the time of this writing I have already posted several thoughts on decision-making aids or techniques.  I also published a post some time ago titled, “Don’t Let the Quest for Perfection Stop You From Delivering Good Enough.”  Today, I’d like to explore the ideas of decision-making and quests for perfection together. 

Are you an optimizer?  An optimizer is one who seeks to get the maximum possible performance or benefit or the best trade-off for every problem one tries to solve.  I’m an optimizer.

In fact, most of us in technical professions or that grew into a leadership position from a technical background, such as engineering or software development, are optimizers.  Our desire, our obsessions, with maximizing the potential of a solution is perhaps what drove us into technical fields to begin with.

Being optimizers makes us excellent designers, developers, or problem solvers, most of the time.  Unfortunately, it often makes us poor decision-makers.

Why would I say that?  Why should seeking the optimal solution be a bad way to make a decision?  Well, often it is just not practical or possible to explore our options or generate the perfect plan in the time we should be making a decision.  Our optimizer personalities paralyze our decision process and we either fail to make a decision, or we do it too slowly.

If you are not sure if you fall into this category, here is a quick quiz.  A “yes” answer to one or more questions might indicate that you are prone to optimizer behavior at least sometimes.  By the way, most of us are.
  • Do you like to weigh all the options before making a decision?
  • If one expert gives you advice, do you still seek advice from other experts?
  • Do you prefer to “sleep” on important decisions?
  • Do you stay awake at night because a pending decision has your mind occupied?
  • When you have bad news to deliver to an executive or a customer, will you carefully plan your words for more than a day?
  • Are you uncomfortable making a decision on the spot, without having some time to consider it first?
  • Do you second-guess your decisions?

If there are a few readers who actually answered “no” to all of those questions, then those readers are probably thinking something like, “Good grief you ninnies!  Get a shot of courage and just make a decision!”  By the way, that response from our peers, our leaders, and our own personnel is exactly the response we earn when we fail to make a timely or confident decision.

Ironically, most readers probably answered “yes” to more than one of those questions.  Therefore, we are either poor decision-makers, or we are at least prone to decision paralysis at certain times, usually when the pressure is highest and it counts the most.  I know that I fall in this group.

The good news is that there is a simple cure for optimizer decision paralysis (sounds like an illness, ODP).  The key to good decision-making is consistently making good decisions instead of wasting time and energy seeking optimal decisions.  Face it, most times the optimal decision just isn’t available or can’t be found in time.

The solution is really that simple.  Changing our own behaviors and habits is not easy, however.  Here I offer some ideas or thoughts that have helped some of my colleagues and me break our optimizer habits and generally make better decisions.

1.  Understand the damage of delayed decisions:
When we take time to make our decisions, everyone, and every process that needs that decision is waiting.  Waiting is one of the cardinal wastes.  Things that could be getting done aren’t getting done.  Sometimes, our people who also feel the pressure of delaying begin to try and predict what the decision will be and work toward that prediction.  If they guess wrong, then all of that work is defective and is wasted.

Aside from the fundamental wasted opportunity, work, time, or man-hours that result from indecision, there is the stress that is induced by indecision.  A pending, un-made decision is a source of stress.  Not only does it create stress for us, but also it stresses everyone else who is waiting for that decision.

It is important for us to conceptualize the waste and stress we create with indecision.  Doing so helps us accept the idea that a good decision now is more valuable than a better decision later.  This acceptance helps us overcome our obsession with seeking perfection.

2.  Give yourself a deadline:
By all means, if a snap decision is not necessary, and you are not comfortable making a decision on the spot, then give yourself some time to think through the options or seek some expert advice.  When you do, though, pick a time that same day by which you will make your decision.

Get what information you can by that time.  Consider the risks and potential of the options you can identify and make the best good decision you can with the information you have.  Get it done, and don’t bring it home.  The longer it waits the more it damages you and your team.

3.  Learn from hindsight, but don’t regret:
Sometimes, when we look back on our decisions we think of a way we might have done better.  Consider this.  The phenomenon happens even when we take a long time and try to make that perfect decision.  It happens no matter what, so don’t worry about it.

If you discover that there might have been a better decision, learn from it and bank it for next time.  It’s been said that wisdom comes not from our good decisions, but from our mistakes and the lessons we learn.  Turn it into wisdom and remain comforted that you made the best decision you knew how at the time with what you understood.

If it helps, consider some of your better designs or process solutions, or programs.  Do you kick yourself because a few years later you see how that solution you were so proud of might be improved upon?  I hope not.  I hope that you simply accept that you could do it better today because you are more experienced.  Treat your decisions the same way.

4.  Prepare your armor against the “woulda-coulda-shoulda:”
Taking #3 a little further, don’t let yourself be intimidated about making a decision because you are concerned that someone else might see a better one later and point it out.  First, refer to the advice given in #3.  Second have a few responses handy to deal with the too-late advisors or critics.
  • “Where were you when I needed that suggestion?”
  • “I didn’t think of that at the time, but I’ll remember it now.”
  • “I did what I thought was best at the time; next time I’ll know better.”
  • “I feel it’s better to make a good decision quickly than to be indecisive.  I took my best shot at the time.”

If the statements are true, then no one should shame you for them.  Even great decision makers can discover better options after the fact.  They don’t let fear of the phenomenon inhibit decisiveness.

5.  Seek only one expert’s opinion:
If you are in a meeting with your team and a problem comes up, it’s great to ask for suggestions and to take all that are given into consideration.  But, if you don’t know enough, or know how to make a decision among your options, and you seek the help of an expert, ask only one.  Do not ask one, and then ask another.

A peer did so recently.  He needed advice from a subject matter expert and so he asked the most senior expert first.  Expert A, gave him the best solution according to his understanding and experience.  Instead of acting on it, this peer went to the next expert and asked him what he should do.  Expert B said, “What did A say?  Do what he said to do.”  This guy got what he deserved.

Think about it.  If you are not willing to take the advice of the expert, why did you ask him in the first place?  If you ask two, and they really are experts, then chances are they will probably provide basically the same advice.  If they don’t agree, then you are no closer to making a decision.  You must choose which expert you trust most.  If you went to that one first, then what was the point of seeking the second again?

Not only is it a complete waste of time, but also you undermine trust.  How do you think your mentor expert feels when he or she finds out you second-guessed his or her advice?  Think of the trust damage that is done and for what?  So they could both tell you the same thing?  You also look like a complete gutless ninny. 

There is an old saying about this.  “A man with two watches never knows what time it is.”  If you consult someone, start with your first choice and end there.

6.  When you find a good decision, stick to it:
Shift your mission from finding the best, most optimal decision, to identifying a good decision.  If you find a good decision and you still have time in your urgency budget to explore further, then go ahead.  Just keep it simple and compare new options to the one good one you already have.  If you find a better one then that’s great.  If not, go with what you’ve got.

Make your priority the identity of a good enough solution.  It is usually much easier and quicker to find than the best solution.  If you need to make a quick, snap decision, then go with the first good solution.  No one will fault you for making a good decision.  People will find fault if you take too long looking for the best decision.

Consider this final thought.  We all want to make the best decision possible.  Those of us who focus on making good decisions will sometimes also find great or optimal decisions.  Those of us who obsess about making optimal decisions rarely satisfy that desire, and often fail as decision-makers because we do not decide soon enough, and we are not confident in our solutions.

If you struggle to make decisions, or if making decisions keeps you up at night or causes you stress, then consider some of the insights shared above.  Keep the 6 suggestions above in your pocket and go over them the next time you need to make an uncomfortable decision.  They can help.

Decision-making is not always easy, but it doesn’t have to be stressful.  Take a good look at those whom you perceive to be good decision-makers.  Chances are they exhibit most or all of the behaviors identified in the suggestions above.  Pick up the habit yourself and become more confident, more admired, and sleep better.

Stay wise, friends.

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