Guess Which One is Worse?
During my time at Microsoft, we had a strong bias for action. It’s part of the company culture. In 2009, we were furiously building Windows Phone and trying to catch Apple. We built a good phone, but it was too little too late. I ran our daily shiproom, a meeting of all the engineering leaders, plus the two VPs (Darren and Henry) who ran those teams. At least once a week in shiproom, we would hit an issue requiring an urgent decision and some deeper thought. Instead of deferring the decision to a meeting later in the week, we would invoke the “mailroom.” Immediately after shiproom, myself, Darren, Henry, and whomever else needed to be involved, would walk across the hall to the nearest empty room – which was the actual mailroom for the building. Since no one was getting physical mail, it was always empty. Some of those mailroom conversations were hotly contested, and more than once, a junior engineer would walk in, see two VPs in a heated debate, and then quickly exit wondering what the heck they just witnessed. As soon as we reached a decision, I would sit on the mail counter and bang out the decision mail to the team. Were we always right? No. But we made a prompt decision with the best information we had at the time, and we kept the team moving forward.
One of the best ways to frustrate a team is to not make decisions. People want to make progress and get their work done. Unmade decisions put people in limbo, and they don’t know whether to go left or right. Frequently, there are other people and teams dependent on the work, and thus those other teams are also in limbo. The trickle-down effect is awful and creates unneeded dysfunction.
When you’re going to make fast decisions, here are a few things to consider.
- Is the decision reversible?
- What are your options?
- How to reverse a wrong decision?
One-Way Door or Two-Way Door?
For each decision, you should ask the question, “Is this a one-way door or a two-way door?” In other words, is it impossible (or prohibitively expensive) to reverse this decision after it’s made? The vast majority of decisions are reversible. Embrace this concept. It’s very freeing and enables teams to move quickly with less fear. Yes, there is always a cost in reversing a decision, and you don’t like to do it (tips on reversals below), but the benefit of making decisions and taking action outweighs the cost of a few reversals.
The vast majority of decisions are reversible.
Embrace this concept.
It’s VERY freeing and enables teams to move quickly with less fear.
A, B, C, or D? Choose one
Exhibit leadership by preparing a list of options for each decision. You don’t have to do this for every decision, but you should do it for the more difficult ones.
- Create a menu of options A, B, C, and D
- Include pros/cons for each
- State which option you recommend
Don’t get too invested in your personal recommendation – it’s merely a starting point and shows that you’re thinking deeply about the problem. With this menu, you are providing a framework and a vocabulary for people to come to a decision. They will say things such as, “I like option B, but we’re missing one of the pros of option A, so if we tweak option B to include that pro, then I like the edited B.”
We Were Wrong – Reverse it
Oops. We were wrong. We went left when we should have gone right. What do we do now?
There are three things:
- Reverse the decision.
- Implement the reversal with the people doing the work.
- Communicate the reversal to all the stakeholders.
To reverse the decision, you need to follow the same steps as you took to decide in the first place. Convene with your decision forum, illustrate what changed, discuss the options, and go through the decision steps to make a new decision.
When reversing a decision, the people doing the work need to know as soon as possible. Help them implement the reversal by immediately communicating with them, answering their questions, and removing any roadblocks. This way, they can (a) stop wasting energy going in the wrong direction, (b) prevent doing something irreversible, and (c) start going in the proper direction.
Lastly, you must communicate the reversal to all the stakeholders. This may be the most crucial step of all. When a decision is changed, people can become anxious. They start to doubt their leadership and can lose faith in decision processes. They think, “If they reversed this decision, how will I know that the next decision will stick.. or the next.. or the next!” It’s your job to restore their faith in the process. So, when you communicate the updated decision, be sure to describe what conditions changed and the logic behind the new decision.
Foster a culture of making decisions as quickly as possible.
Even if you’re not the one making the decision, you can push the decision-makers to decide quickly. When you embrace the mindset of “We need to decide now. It’s okay if we’re wrong,” the upside of continual progress will far outweigh the downside of a few wrong decisions. Do yourself and your teammates a favor and decide now.
In 2018, I published my 11 most important lessons from Microsoft email, and over 25,000 people read it and forwarded it to their friends and colleagues. Many people asked me to write in more depth about the topics in the email, so that’s what I’m doing at AlexHinrichs.com.