How to make faster decisions
Startups thrive or die on the speed of decision-making
I used to be a deliberator. I wanted to hear all sides and gather all the data before making a decision. Honestly, I probably wasted a lot of time doing that.
My friend Tom recently shared a story that reminded me of my own painfully slow tendencies. Years back, Tom helped a local boy scout troop camping trips. One of the tasks that the adults would share responsibilities for was cooking duty.
One of Tom's friends was tasked with breakfast, and he would stop every few minutes to ask Tom what to do. What type of eggs should I make? How big of a fire do I need? How do I toast the bread? He spent more time asking questions than cooking, and the troopers were getting hungry.
Finally, after fielding endless questions, Tom stopped his friend, looked him in the eye, and said, “Who's making the breakfast? Are you making breakfast, or am I?”
We all tend to fall into this affliction known as decision paralysis. Because most decisions we face have ambiguous outcomes, we are scared to make the wrong decision. It was not until I had my own startup that I realized how crippling this tendency could be.
Startups thrive or die on the speed of decision-making
When I launched my startup, we would debate everything. We debated the branding, marketing, sales tactics, investor outreach, product flows, and pretty much every aspect of the business. After months of this, we had made exactly zero progress. That’s when I realized that we were our own worst enemy.
Most decisions we make on a regular basis will never be consequential enough to have long-term impact. In fact, it is extremely rare that any one decision will cause the death of your startup. But we continue to believe that every decision is life or death.
At Amazon, we have a concept called “one-way and two-way doors” to help visualize this idea. One-way doors have significant consequences. Once you choose that door, you cannot go back. Two-way doors are decisions that you can roll back without a lot of negative consequences. In fact, most decisions in life and in our careers are two-way doors.
Not every two-way door you open is going to lead to a successful outcome. In fact, most decisions will lead you the wrong way early on. The new fancy feature bombs, the code you wrote introduced bugs, the customer you chase ghosts you. The mistakes hurt, but it’s also an opportunity to learn and make better decisions next time.
Beyond the idea of one-way and two-way doors, I also developed a framework to help me become faster at making decisions. Framework consists of three ideas; destination clarity, decision memory, and pattern recognition.
Destination clarity is like vision. Our destination is often not clear at the beginning and the path to get there murky. Therefore, we rely on signals to see ahead and guide us. Greater signal clarity only comes however when you make decisions that help define and make the destination clearer.
This leads to decision memory. In order to get good at making decisions quickly, you need to make a lot of decisions. Framing decisions as one-way and two-way doors helps because it gives you the freedom to take more risk and experiment. Making lots of decisions quickly though also has the downside of being wrong a lot. The inventor Thomas Edison once said this:
How did Edison find success without giving up? He developed pattern recognition. By having those past experiences, he learned what “good” looks like. This is why athletes and artists practice with precision and intention. Practice provides the repetitions to gain a feel for the right motions and viable patterns.
There are no shortcuts to pattern recognition other than doing the work. A favorite Andy Jassy (CEO of Amazon) saying is, “there is no compression algorithm for experience”. There are ways that can help accelerate and improve your pattern recognition though, that I segment into pre and post-startup:
Find a mentor – Find someone that has already excelled in your own field and is motivated to help you succeed.
Shadow senior colleagues – Often less structured but more flexible than a formal mentorship arrangement.
Take on a senior management role – Senior roles require more decision-making responsibility, experience you will need as a founder.
Collaborate across teams – Seeing how other teams operate helps you better understand team dynamics that you need to navigate as a founder.
Volunteer at a non-profit – The non-profit world is an excellent environment to understand human dynamics at work outside of purely monetary motivations.
Join a startup – If you come from a corporate background, there is no better place when it comes to understanding startup speed.
Join a founder community – Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey, connecting with founders can help you feel more connected and provide good advice.
Find a peer mentor – This is another founder where you act as accountability partners to help each other out as mentors to each other.
Hire an executive coach – This requires an investment in time and money, but a great coach can dramatically accelerate your startup results.
Read more books – Reading may seem like a luxury in a startup, but books provide a good source for ideas that you can immediately put into practice.
Decision paralysis is slow death. The compounding effects of making decisions too slowly creates a vicious cycle where you kill your startup. Using the idea of one-way, two-way doors coupled with the above framework for making better decisions will help you to push ahead with more confidence and to help you to make the right decisions more consistently.
Do you have a framework for decision-making? What type of barriers exist today that prevent you from making decisions faster in your startup?
This week’s commentary is a bit different than previous as there were a few articles we were reading that we found quite fascinating across computer history and fund raising that we think you would enjoy!
In a previous newsletter about NYC’s rise as a startup ecosystem, we referred to Silicon Valley emerging as a thriving startup hub seemingly overnight from apple orchards. As Steve Blank so eloquently states though, the birth of Silicon Valley was not in the 60’s, but way back in 1909 with companies building vacuum tubes and then microwave components in the 50’s, all supported by the US military in their backyard out of Moffett Air Base!
At one point in the world of business computing, DEC was one of the few true rivals to IBM for market dominance. With the VAX architecture, DEC become the second biggest technology company in the world. Then the company saw a slow decline in the 90’s until selling to Compaq. While DEC is a distant memory, the VAX operating system still plays an important role in most computers these days from Windows to the Mac architectures.
Moving on from history, there is a pending logjam of startups fund raising from now till end of year. How quickly they get that done, if they even succeed, will partially depend on the process they use to raise capital. We saw this helpful and very practical suggestion from one VC partner on the process they use with their portfolio companies, preparing an FAQ for each raise they do. The better the process, the better the results.
The 42Geeks tour wrapped up last Friday (thus no newsletter last week), and what a whirlwind of a tour it was! We started in Taipei, then made our way to Seoul, before rounding out the tour in Tokyo.
42Geeks East Asia Tour
There is too much to share in this newsletter (we could, but it would be a really long newsletter), so we are posting links to our LinkedIn posts from the tour so you can learn a bit about each ecosystem and how they are supporting startups:
42Geeks East Asia Tour
Let us know if you have any questions about the startup communities and opportunities to launch a startup or expand your market into any of these regions!