WHAT: I’d like to quit my job – I’m sick and tired of it and want to do a startup.
BUT, how will I let my family/wife/significant other, know? The thought of having to convince stakeholders, especially if they are family – who we fear will not be receptive or supportive – puts the kibosh on even making the decision.
So step back and recognize the WHAT of a decision is the most important – and neither the WHEN will I implement the decision nor HOW will I implement the decision should come into play, while trying to make a decision. Of course, they are relevant such as
WHAT: I want to fire that guy who’s being a jerk to everyone else
HOW: Talk to him, if necessary with HR present. Ask him questions on how he perceives his own behavior. Provide him feedback on what you’ve observed. Put him on a 90-day improvement plan.
WHEN: By June 30th of this year
As you can see the HOW may require a fair amount of work – may involve others and will definitely influence the WHEN. None of this should put off making your decision – WHAT it is you want to do.
This is a question that comes up with surprising frequency. It’s not just prospective entrepreneurs who ask such questions.
“Should I fire him?” is another one I get asked frequently. This is often with a high-performing but a hard-to-get-along employee.
As leaders, managers, and individuals we are constantly having to make decisions. Decisions, that all too often don’t seem easy to make. They may have too high a cost – one that makes it daunting, even if it’s a simple Yes or No decision. Some would argue there are no simple decisions, especially when it comes to matters of people or organizations. And when a decision is hard to make, we invariably postpone it.
Rarely does such procrastination make things easier.
One simple secret to make such decision-making easier, is to separate the what from the when.
Most people, conflate what they intend to do (“the decision”) with when they will implement the decision. In other words, if you decide to quit your job, when do you have to give notice? The thought of giving notice, is itself daunting and keeps you from making a decision about your job. The moment you recognize that these are two distinct things – “Should you quit?” and “When should you quit?” – you will find it easier to make the decision about your job.This works from the simplest “Do we go on a vacation?” to “Do we fire this customer.”
Try it today and let me know how it works for you.
“The VCR is not turning on!” says my wife over the phone. We often have short phone calls along these lines. At other times it’s the laser printer or the washing machine not working or turning on. My first question usually is “Honey, is it plugged in the wall?” followed by “Is the switch on the wall socket turned on?” Sometimes we find that the kids have used the electrical socket for something else and just unplugged our device. At other times they left the outlet turned off or forgotten to turn the UPS back on, after switching it off when it last squealed.
While I’m sure your spouse (or room mate or sibling) and you never have such conversations, we certainly have to thank William of Occam (also Ockham) who lived eight hundred years ago. His eponymous maxim (aka Occam’s razor) states “in explaining a thing no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.”
In other words the simplest explanation for any observed phenomenon is likely the right one. This is the reason when we show up with chest pains, they check for heartburn or gas first rather than rush you into surgery. As entrepreneurs, managers and leaders, we are often faced with issues that seem to baffle us.
Why can’t I seem to hire anyone?
Why didn’t that VC call us back – the meeting went so well, we thought?
Why is the customer not prepared to commit?
Why is the network slow?
Why does our product crash often?
For most of theses instances, Occam’s razor is worth keeping in mind. Before you explore more complex reasons, look for the simplest ones first and those are the most likely ones.
Of course it’s worth keeping Einstein’s caveat in mind
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
If you’ve come this far, you might as well read what physicists have to say about Occam’s razor here.
Life has a nasty way of springing surprises on you. The only certainty, it would appear, is that you will encounter a lot of uncertainty. Being an entrepreneur is no different. If you are like me, you might have thought you made your hardest decision when you chose to become an entrepreneur.
Wrong! Before you know it, the business, customers, employees and the world at large are bringing problems that require you to make decisions. There also seem to be few easy decisions. Why didn’t anyone tell you about this? Well, you heard it here first — much of your productive time as an entrepreneur will go to making, hopefully, good decisions.
“Effective executives do not make a great many decisions. They concentrate on the important ones,” says Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive. Simple as Drucker’s assertion sounds, it is hard in the fog of entrepreneurial battle to focus on the important few. So how do you identify the important from the merely urgent or routine problems? Having identified these, how can you make good or effective decisions?
Is this your decision? The best way to make good decisions is to first determine if it is even your decision to make. Entrepreneurs — and here I speak with some experience — love to be in the thick of things. “The equipment is stuck in Customs. We won’t be able to ship our product on time. What do we do?” “He won’t accept our offer without a joining bonus. Should we offer him one?” “The customer will not issue a purchase order without a penalty clause. Do we agree to one?”
Issues like these will keep popping up all the time. While you may love playing Captain Crunch, the one everyone goes to for decisions, you would be mistaken to offer one for every question posed. If you want your business to grow and, importantly, if you want to have a personal life, it is critical that most decisions be made by other people. That is the first decision you have to make every time, answering the question: Is this a decision someone else should be making?
So how do you determine which decisions are yours to make? I’d recommend that you use the following simple guideline — if a year from now it would still matter what decision you make now, then it is probably something you want to be involved in. For instance, agreeing to a penalty clause in a multi-year contract with the Government will matter. Similarly, anything that involves the culture of your organisation or shareholding or capitalisation would make the cut. Most other decisions can probably be made by someone else. Which of course brings up the question: How do you ensure that the decisions others make do not drown your business?
Decision mechanics Having a well thought out and tested process for decision making will not only help you but your entire team make the right decisions. Here again, I refer to the work of Peter Drucker who spells out a five-step decision-making process. They are:
Comprehending the nature of the problem or decision — is it generic or an exception?
Understanding the boundary conditions of the problem.
Figuring out the right solution without considering real world compromises that might be needed.
The action required to execute the decision.
Validating the appropriateness of the decision once taken.
At first glance, it may seem tough to figure out what to do if your product won’t ship on time. Most operational issues do not require executive decision making. As in the example of agreeing to a penalty clause in your Government order or deciding to do business with the Government or setting up an overseas distributor — issues that will have a long-term impact on your business — a well thought out process helps. Further, it allows your senior staff or other partners to use the same methods and yardsticks to make their decisions. This way your direct presence or involvement is not needed in each time.
Drucker makes the point that one rarely encounters truly exceptional cases. Most situations you encounter, even if new to your business, are generic and would require a rule to be fashioned. “We don’t sign penalty clauses in our contracts or any penalty or liability clause cannot exceed the value of the contract itself,” is a rule you can formulate. “We may offer discounts or walk away but no penalty clauses,” is another. It is critical to define the problem before you attempt to make a decision. This requires the first three steps to be followed rigorously. Subsequently, dealing in the real world rather than in some ideal scenario, it is important to ensure that the solution is effective. And this should not merely be faith-based but data-driven; such validation after a decision is made will ensure you continue to make good decisions or learn from bad ones.
The five steps could take a few minutes in some instances and a few weeks in others. Either way, it will help you make measured decisions. Needless to say no process is infallible and good leaders trust their instincts. Of course, great leaders know when not to rely on their instincts but to get the data first.
Not making a decision is a decision The former Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao epitomised the art of non-decision making or so it seemed. Legend has it that he’d avoid making difficult decisions and in time, the problem would disappear or resolve itself. As an entrepreneur you will rarely have the luxury of ignoring decision making. That is not to say you will not do it. I have avoided the hard decision to let go of some difficult employees, as my staff keep reminding me frequently. Such avoidance of decision making is the classical ostrich-sticking-its-head-in-the-sand syndrome.
It is critical to recognise that it is a legitimate decision when you decide to not make a decision. It’s worth reading the previous sentence more than once — it is not intended as a play on words. Choosing to not make a decision is completely different from avoiding a decision. The difference is that you have made an explicit choice, one with consequences that you understand and are prepared to live with. Such a choice is particularly appropriate when it is evident that the situation will take care of itself. More importantly, it is of little importance, even if annoying, and is unlikely to have any material impact. In such circumstances, it is worth keeping in mind the Roman edict, “De minimis non curat praetor”or “the magistrate does not consider trifles!”
This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 17, 2008
Over the last several years, I have written about startups, entrepreneurship and business in general in the Hindu BizLine and Wall St. Journal. I have compiled these for easy access in the column below.