Why not taking a decision is also a decision


If I look back on my company’s growth history, I can clearly see which changes had the most impact. The decision to only bill as Software-as-a-Service SAAS (even though we shipped the product as on-premise software), the decision to avoid one-time perpetual software licensing (regardless of how deceptively sweet it sounded at that time), or the decision to drastically overhaul our entire UI (following customer complaints over the years) played an influential role. Even more significant I think were the decisions that simply were not made.

The delay in recognizing when a new key product hire was not working out, the delay in having those tough conversations when things start going sideways, and the delay in going aggressively after a market when the signs were clear as day hurt us a lot more.

While one could argue that lack of decision-making could only be seen as a problem after the fact, the reality was that these non-decisions were made without any intention. They happened because we sat around twiddling our thumbs unwilling to commit and just ignoring doing the right thing.

A side effect of the complexity of the world around a business and the rate of change means that an organization needs to become agile and dynamic in decision-making to survive and thrive. Agility and dynamism mean that a resilient organization can handle the environment around it by making small quick corrective changes as needed.

Imagine you are driving a car from New York to Washington and there is a big snowstorm. While the destination doesn’t change, you might have to adjust to the road conditions and take a detour to minimize the impact on your schedule. If you decide to keep driving in your original route no matter what (ignoring the weather report), you are actually taking a decision (although unwittingly) that you are going to regret and also that will make you end up in Miami way later than you planned.

The best way to know when you are taking a non-decision is whenever you hear the following types of phrases used in a meeting.

“We just don’t have the data points yet to see if that is trend”

“We need to wait and watch”

“We need to give (him/that/something) a bit more time”

“It is a bit too early to tell”

Typically a decision stops being a conscious decision when the data is so overwhelming and in your face that it becomes your only option. This usually happens when you wait long enough. The only problem, in that case, is that the decision is untimely, irrelevant, and mostly loses all impact. It is like trying to rotate the steering wheel after you hit a road bump.

The biggest reason why most people and organizations avoid taking decisions is the fear of commitment to a single path which might reduce options. Waiting till something better comes is preferable to committing to a suboptimal choice right now.

The second reason people avoid taking decisions is fear of failure when taking decisions. The thinking goes that you could be fired for bad decision-making while none can be blamed for not taking a stand (or a decision).

What is the way to really combat non-decision-making in your organization? Here’s a simple framework that helps.

1. Embrace the notion that failure is not fatal

Allow mistakes to be made without repercussions and finger-pointing. Make your organization embrace failure as a culture and don’t punish failures when people push into new paths or try new things.

2. Build a sense of urgency

‘Fail fast and break things’ used to be Facebook’s motto. When there is a clear sense of urgency, there is a higher chance of things getting done and fewer non-decisions.

3. Have leaders at every level who genuinely care and are conscientious

Ultimately, non-decision-making happens when people have given up and no one really cares about the journey. An engaged workplace is where the real magic happens and that starts from the top and permeates every level.

If your workplace is filled with people who are inspired by your organization’s vision then there is a strong bias towards action and using up every opportunity to its fullest potential.

Leave a Reply