In my essay last week, I discussed how decision-making frameworks do not take into account the cost of analysis. Tucked into the middle of that piece was the idea that decisiveness is an orthogonal factor when it comes to overall decision quality:
(…) decisions in the real world are often time sensitive — the sooner you act, the more value you realise from having acted (but often the precise amount of that value is also occluded by uncertainty). Most decision-making frameworks don't take time selection into account, since there is no need to model time sensitivity in decision experiments. But in the real world, the utility of each choice may sometimes depend on the decisiveness with which you act on your analysis.
In other words, how quickly you act after coming to a decision is just as important as how you come to said decision. I didn’t spend as much time on this idea in last week’s piece, so I want to take a little time to talk about this now. I think we’ll all agree that the following idea is more obvious than the last one; I'll keep this piece short.
The Costs of Acting Slowly
I once had to fire a subordinate who had mysteriously stopped producing. He took two hour-long lunch breaks. He came in late in the morning. He left tasks unfinished. Others had to pick up the slack.
The odd thing was that he had passed probation, weeks earlier, without much fuss. And he was such a nice guy. “Maybe he would get better next month,” I thought. “Maybe there’s something going on in his life. Maybe I should gather more information.” We would go on these long, walking one-on-ones together, through a park in central Ho Chi Minh City. It didn’t seem like anything was up. He would tell me about his mother. I liked him.
But the weeks turned into months, and the evidence kept piling up. Eventually, things came to a head. I remember standing in the shower, thinking about all that had happened at work, when I realised that I wasn’t being honest with myself. “You’re avoiding this because it’s hard. You already know what to do. The evidence has been staring at you in the face for months.”
I started the firing process the very next day. A month later, one of my subordinates talked about it during our one-on-one. He asked: “Why did you take so long? We thought you didn’t know.”
“I think I knew,” I replied. “I knew there was a problem. The evidence was pretty clear.”
And then I sighed: “I knew what to do; I just didn't want to do it.”
One of the lessons you learn in management is that organisational problems become more intractable the longer they remain unsolved. You start by not firing one likeable under-performer, and then before too long you have a culture of underperformance that permeates your entire org. Eventually, the competent people quit — they don’t enjoy the extra work. Those who aren’t as competent stay. Your company remains unquestionably likeable. But correcting the culture now becomes a lot more difficult than if you corrected it in the early days.
(I say this like it is some slippery slope, but this is what happened in an actual company that I know).
What did my team think in the months that I dithered? What was I communicating with my actions? From the perspective of the junior engineers who were observing (and who had to pick up the slack), I was probably communicating the idea that performance didn’t matter as much as likeability did. This was at odds with what I was saying verbally. The longer I took to act, the more pronounced this message became.
I had to spend a month after this incident re-establishing the idea that we took performance seriously. My inaction cost us — though not as much as if I had delayed more. I brought this up in the next manager staff meeting we had:
“It doesn’t matter if you know what to do and you don’t do it.” I said. “I made a mistake here." (Most of the managers were aware of what had happened; they knew this was on me.)
I continued: “I think this is a useful lesson for you to watch out for, because it happened to me — and I knew better! Firing under-performers is one of the most important things you’ll need to do if you want to keep good people on your team. But you’re going to face incredible mental pressure in order to do it. We don’t like doing uncomfortable things. You are likely going to delay the decision to fire when you most need to.”
A year later, when I was about to leave the company, a subordinate told me that he really enjoyed working with the team we had assembled. “Everyone is good”, he said, “Everyone pulls their weight.” I remember thinking this was the best compliment anyone had ever given me at the company. But then I thought back to my dithering, and I realised how difficult it was to ensure this remained the case. I had trained the managers who were going to take over from me. I had taught them the framework I used for deciding if someone had to go. But I still wasn’t sure if they could carry it out.
In theory, the most difficult challenge in decision making is making the right decision. In practice, I’ve found that the most difficult challenge in decision making is executing a decision you do not want to do. This includes things like firing a subordinate, quitting your job, or laying off a quarter of your company. It includes breaking up with your partner when the relationship doesn’t seem to be working out.
Being effective calls for us to act decisively on decisions that we do not like. This is common sense. And yet it remains amongst the hardest things we do.
Frameworks Can’t Explain It All
I’ve spent two essays talking about taking action and being decisive. Why? One reason is that — in the spaces in which I hang out online, there seems to be a belief that ‘rationality’, and mental models, and decision-making frameworks are all you need to achieve your goals and become effective.
This is partially true. Effective individuals have slightly better decision making methods in their heads, and they use thinking tools that are more effective at getting to their goals. But these tools aren’t enough to explain their effectiveness.
Sometimes, a simpler explanation is better. We don’t talk about decisiveness or about taking action as much because it’s so obvious, and because there’s nothing systematic about it that we can discuss. You just have to … do things. That’s easy to say, but it’s difficult to pull off.
And so this next sentence is going to sound trite: effective individuals are usually effective because a) they are biased towards action, and b) they have the stomach to do what the rest of us might not. (The very fact that the phrase ‘has the stomach to …’ exists in English probably tells us there is something old and wise here!)
We ignore this truth at our peril.
The next time you’re facing a difficult decision, you may use whatever decision-making framework you like. But you should probably keep in mind the idea that the more time you spend thinking, the higher the costs you pay. As psychologist Jonathan Baron puts it: “thinking is negative utility!” … which is a fancy way of saying: decisiveness is important.
But then again, you probably already knew that anyway.