Why Organizations Get Stuck in Indecision (and How to Fix It)

critical thinking decision making Oct 28, 2022
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While business is demanding that we move quicker and quicker, many organizations find they they remain stuck in indecision. People who would be reluctant to throw away, say, 3/4 of their profit margin think nothing of taking a month to decide on something that ought to take a week. Big companies are interviewing candidates 10-12 times over several months before making a decision on a mid-level hire. Investors do due diligence for the better part of a year before deciding to move forward or pass on a deal. People hold two and three hour meetings where items on the agenda are discussed but no decisions are made. True, there are some bet-the-farm decisions that need careful consideration and time to elicit buy-in from all the stakeholders, but for most issues, there is no one right answer and any decision would be preferable to taking so much time. So why do we delay when it comes to making a choice?

Lack of process. If you don't have a good decision making process, you tend to feel that you are missing a critical piece of information. You don't have confidence in your methodology so you look for more data, ask more people, do more analysis. Sometimes this is a good thing but often it's just burning daylight. A good process will help you know the difference and encourage you to move forward if appropriate.

Discomfort with ambiguity. We hate making decisions in situations where ambiguity prevails. One of the most concepts to internalize is there are no right answers. Another is that you will never have perfect information. Sometimes you just have to to make the best decision you can make with the information you have. The reality is, a year from now everything will likely have changed so just keep moving forward. 

We feel like we are moving quickly. We tweet, we text, we answer emails until midnight. We digest more information in a week than people used to absorb in a year. We Zoom and monitor Slack and go to endless meetings. And every three months, we are judged on our performance. So we must be making decisions quickly too, right? Wrong. Decisions require some focused thinking and that rarely happens while tweeting or in a meeting. An hour or two thinking critically about a decision with the right players in the room can save weeks or months of time.

It feels like a high stakes game. The reality is, making decisions involves taking risks. A good decision making process helps to mitigate the risk but nothing is for sure. We are so averse to loss, that the potential to make a mistake can cause us to freeze. But doing nothing is almost always worse than doing something: as T.S. Eliot wisely noted, the world ends not with a bang but a whimper. A company that wants to move forward knows that mistakes will be made and will make its people feel secure in spite of that. Making a bad decision should not be a career killer; making no decision should be.

There is safety in numbers. Once upon a time, if you wanted to hire someone, you placed and ad, went with your gut, and took the new hire to lunch a week later. Now, we've added a lot of steps because we don't want to be wrong. Some of those steps are necessary to eliminate hiring biases and increase diversity. Other steps seem more like damage control in advance like dozens of interviews, psych assessments and trial runs so that no one person can be accused of making a mistake. 

Data overload. Columbia University's Sheena Iyengar ran the famous "jam test," which showed that when we are faced with  too many varieties of jam, we are unable to choose which one to buy and so we simply walk away. An abundance of choice leads to decision paralysis. We now have more data available on our phones than was once stored in the best graduate school libraries.  We are used to data being able to solve our problems. We think that the answer lies "out there" and with a bit more time we will stumble across the one piece of data that will help us make the perfect decision. We never have perfect information so just decide already. 

Decision making is not a proxy for having a crystal ball. When we are asked to make decisions that have a future impact (in other words when we are asked to make any decision), we want to have some certainty about the future before moving ahead. This is impossible and a lot of genius moves are only so in hindsight. Make the best decision with the the information you have and move forward. 

Numbers aren't gospel. People seemed to derive more certainty from numbers than from any other type of information. People would rather make a decision based on numerical projections than understand the underlying assumptions. Numbers can feel more real or legitimate because as a society we value them. But they don't necessarily tell the truth about a situation. By looking at the entire picture, you can feel more comfortable moving ahead.

Values aren't clear. When you go to Starbucks do you get flummoxed when they ask you if you want to buy the snowflake cookie? Of course not. You have your own pre-established heuristic when it comes to cookies. Yes or no is easy. If you walked in to the place with no sense of what you value (treating yourself vs saving money) your decision would be more difficult. If your company values are clear, you make people's jobs that much easier.

You are out of practice. Practice making unimportant decisions quickly. Many decisions require wading through information, detailed analysis, stakeholder consensus building, and careful deliberation. Many decisions don't. We are used to demanding that we make the best decision rather than a decisions that suits our needs. As Gretchen Rubin points out in her book The Happiness Project, Satisficers are happier than Maximizers. Find a solution that works and go with it. Practice making unimportant decisions quickly so that you feel more comfortable with the major ones. 

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