Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 14, 2022
by Neil Senturia
“Come on, Harry, for God’s sake make up your mind.”
Decisions, decisions, we make them every day, but do we make them well? OK, maybe you can ask Siri or Google about what car to buy, but I don’t think you can ask them what price to charge for the license to the new software.
I am funding a tiny new startup in the DIY (do it yourself), D2C (direct to consumer) space. So the management team is hot and heavy in the early, and often the most important, decision-making process. My basic mantra to the team is to “test” assumptions, but I don’t get any points for that. A/B testing and SEO data mining are old hat by now. But I can always improve in this area, so I turned to Columbia Business School professor Cheryl Einhorn to debunk some classic myths and mistakes about decision-making.
“I like to be efficient.”But we also know that sometimes speed kills. It is important to not make a decision before you need to. Additional input usually improves the process. And not every decision requires agonizing research. Just order the pasta primavera and get back to work.
“I need to solve this problem right now.” This is the classic failure to understand the mesh network effect of all decisions that are connected to each other. A macro view is required, forest v. trees, otherwise unintended consequences will inevitably arrive.
“This is my decision alone.” I would say, horse pucky to that one. “No man/woman is an island,” John Donne.
“I know I’m right; I just want you to agree with me.” This is confirmation bias on steroids. Creates high risk of group think and the unwillingness to look for other explanations or data.
“I trust my gut.” Given that I am an investor in a micro-biome company, I can say with reasonable certainty that the gut is not that good at decision-making. There are approximately 39 billion microbial cells in the human body. Which one are you gonna trust?
“Decision-making is linear.” No. It is circular and can often look like a rhombic dodecahedron. That is why it is critical to write things down. I frequent several restaurants in the neighborhood at lunchtime. The first thing I ask for is a large sheet of butcher paper, I take notes and then I take the “table cloth” with me.
You think you know what you think you said but perhaps it was not what you meant or what the other party heard. The pasta stain next to the words will help remind you.
“I have all the information I need.” It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that will kill you — and sometimes other people as well. The subtext here is also where are you getting your information? Is it coming from someone with an agenda, with a bias? Is it on point or tangential? It can be effective to continue to ask questions, but by the same token, you need to ask in a way that it is not perceived as prosecutorial. Give room for adjustment without loss of face.
“I am a rational person.” Sure, you and 330 million other citizens. Take vaccines for instance, of course we all agree on that.
“There is only one way to do this,” and its corollary cousin, “Because we have always done it this way in the past.” This seems obviously wrong, of course, but as we know, both of these are common default options when we are confronted with a challenge to our leadership. We are afraid to seem weak, so we default to strong-man stupidity.
It takes time to make good decisions, the ones that truly impact and define your company. And new data often requires what Einhorn calls a “cheetah pause.” She developed the phrase after learning that the “cheetah’s prodigious hunting skill is not due to its speed (60 miles per hour), but rather to its ability to decelerate rapidly and change course.” They turn on a dime. A useful skill for a wide receiver as well as a CEO.
And finally, it’s hard to know if your decision was a good one, because often the feedback loop is not instantaneous.
Well, I guess you can just trust me on that one?
Senturia is a serial entrepreneur who invests in early stage technology companies. You can hear his weekly podcast on innovation and entrepreneurship at imthereforyoubaby.com. Please email ideas to [email protected]
Rule No. 700
Sure, gimme the pasta primavera.