Working with companies throughout the years, I continually see teams that are stuck on a certain issue and want to know what to do. The answer is usually far less scientific than they think: do something. Anything. More often than not, the wrong decision is far better than making no decision.
I was recently told a story that illustrates this incredibly well. Researcher Paul Slovic was studying the use of data to make decisions. At a racetrack, he observed professional horse handicappers to see how successful the were in predicting the outcomes of races. With an average of 10 horses in each race, the handicappers would be expected to be successful about 10% of the time and have a 10% level of confidence. Each handicapper was then given 5 pieces of information they requested concerning the horses and their performance. Their accuracy rose to 17% and confidence was in line with that at 19%.
In the next round, the handicappers were given 10 pieces of information they requested. The round after that was 20, and the final round was 40 pieces of information. Accordingly, the handicappers confidence increase to 34%, yet, perhaps bizarrely, their accuracy stayed firm at 17%.
The point is this: too often we become crippled with the desire for more information to remove any perceived risk in decision-making, thus leaving us in a paralyzed state of endless meetings and discussions when the real risk to us and our business is not making the wrong decision, but rather wasting time. After all, you have the same chance of getting it right as you wait longer, so why not get on with it?
I suppose this should be expected though. Individuals very much fear making the wrong decision or fear looking stupid. At least that’s what I used to think. What I’ve found, however, is that more than fear of a misstep, we fear the unknown. In our minds, the unknown seems to generate more fear than if we clearly lay out the maximum impact of the worst-case scenario. Often it’s far less fearful than we’ve made it out to be.
Years ago, there was a very famous assault in Manhattan. There were loud screams in an upscale, heavily populated neighborhood. The assault took place over several minutes, yet no one called police. After the fact, hundreds of the neighborhood’s residents emerged as witnesses, but why had no one called the police? The all figured that someone else had and didn’t want to appear stupid by being yet another person calling police to alert them to this. The lesson in this is that we must seek action at the cost of our personal fears.
How many things in your life do you look back on and think “I wish I would have done that sooner?” My guess is quite a few. Things like diet, exercise, professional development, making the decision to be a more involved parent, focusing on one’s relationships, and the list goes on. 2017 was filled with things that I wished I discovered or acted on sooner. In fact, it’s quite rare that we ever look back and think that we did something too soon. To put it simply, if you’re wondering when to do something, the answer is to do it now.
It’s important to understand the difference between taking action and rushing. Rushing means that you’re acting hastily and operating without sufficient thoughts and planning. In an action-oriented scenario, it’s vital that proper thought and planning be put into something; the key is that we understand the point at which more information doesn’t help us get to a better decision and that we don’t let fear hinder our actions.
Years ago I was working with a business that was faced with some financial troubles. This business operated a substantial real estate portfolio, and had some decent options to bolster the businesses’ profitability by dramatically reducing the size of its real estate portfolio. Each time the groups responsible for this decision came together to decide which option to pursue, individuals within the group would request some absurd pieces of data and refuse to choose until that data was factored in. The data was always difficult to obtain, but once it was, it didn’t change the analysis of the options. Yet, this cycle repeated itself for many years without a decision being made.
While the company missed out on a few years of increased profits because of the lack of a decision, this delay caused incredible havoc on the company’s internal operations. The company was operating several disparate IT systems that dearly needed to be upgraded. Without a clear direction as to what the real estate footprint would be, the correct IT systems could not be selected and the correct level of inventory to support the real estate could not be purchased. So what happened? Inventory was bought at a level to support a much larger real estate footprint and systems were not replaced, thus leaving the company operating insufficient systems with far too much inventory.
I’ve said it many times. Time is the one thing that you can’t get back. By failing to make decisions and act, you waste your most precious resource and set in action a series events that will keep you far away from achieving your goals. So when faced with any question, problem or predicament, the answer is always to act.