Being decisive is an art, a skill, a dance, and a sport. Like all sports, confidence is half the battle. In an age where we are encouraged to learn from mistakes and take risks, how can we say with confidence “This is what will happen”? In this post I look at mantras/ideas/annotations from observations, experience, and guidance from people much smarter than me on the subject of being decisive.
Trusting your gut vs only following data
This subject is highly contested in every industry. A research piece from the department of Primary Care at the University of Oxford showed that doctors who act on instinct are catching 2 out of 6 “missed diagnostics” of seriously ill children. I find this fascinating as the majority of the diagnosis’ the doctors caught were literally one in a million (very Doctor House), but these were found by doctors who are experts in their field, hell maybe the only experts in sub fields.
Now most of the work we do wont ever be as literally life or death as that, but what makes them able to make these big bets? Being a subject matter expert! If you are an expert, chances are you will make a right call or the call that gets you to where you need to be. The challenge is acknowledging your own competences in what you do, a little knowledge is a terrible thing. If you do not know your field or subject matter well enough then follow the experts lead. This is why the hiring process or a product team is fundamental, because if you always wait for the factual information to become available to make the decision, the risk in waiting might mean that your decision becomes after the fact.
We are not going to the moon anymore
I heard this comparison in a seminar a while back and I always think back to this when something goes FUBAR and I need to change the game plan. The Apollo 13 mission, as we all know, was the doomed mission to the moon where half way through the first leg of the journey an equipment malfunction caused the spacecraft to be heavily damaged. It is a testament of human endeavour and ingenuity between the control centre in Houston and the spaceship thousand of miles away from earth with limited damaged equipment. As we all know the team managed to successfully bring the crew home safe. Anyone who hasn’t seen the 1995 drama based on these events needs to get to Amazon and buy right now. What makes this story an amazing achievement of decisiveness, was acting on the current situation, not on the original plan. There is a famous scene in the film (which according to Gene Kranz’s memoir actually did happen this way in real life) where the management team at NASA were debriefing over the options available. Gene went up to a backboard, wiped everything off, took out a box filled with equipment that was also on the Apollo 13 spacecraft and said “We are not going to the moon anymore, we have to get that ship home, with this amount of oxygen, on these resources, and we have 1 hour to have a plan”. I love this! I imagine there was a mixture of disappointment, fear, and bewilderment in that room when this guantlet was laid. Now, most of us will never have to land a spaceship but the principles here can be translated into any walk of life when you need to take action at a time of crisis. Don’t look at what has gone, look at your current situation, look at what the end game is now, evaluate on the resources available, and set a target and timeline to it. My father always says to me when I get faced with disappointment “Accept it, deal with it, and move on”.
Make it your decision, not someone else’s
This is a pitfall a lot of decision makers fall into, essentially they spend so long agonising over the options available that the decision gets taken away by time or the HiPPO. Don’t be THAT person, you are a Product Manager for a reason, go with what you think is best. You have been hired/trained because someone trusts you, embrace the faith and pick what you think is the best course of action. Chances are you have nailed a decision right at some point in your career so have faith that it will happen again.
Take “5 minutes”, but not a second more
Sometimes you owe it to the magnitude of your choices to give yourself some breathing room, but before you run off to your area of tranquillity make a note of when you need to make a decision by otherwise you will fall foul of the previous point.
We all had a manager or boss that always seemed confident, knowledgeable, and made the right decisions. I have had terrible bosses but I have also had bosses who I hold in very high regard: there was one manager that it didn’t seem to matter what I was dealt with, he would sit down with me, assess the options, and help me make the decision.
It wasn’t until I actually got to a place in my career where I started to make decisions on my own that I realised that person probably didn’t have a clue some of the time. In fact he might have been winging it and actually just asking me the right questions to come to any conclusion, but that doesn’t stop me saying “What would **** do?” “How would **** do it?” An old mentor once told me to “fake it till you make it”, I respectfully decline that, for me it’s ‘do what someone you believe is good would do’.