10 Habits for Making Wicked Hard Decisions

How to make tough decisions about products, people, and business.

That’s me, at a “Netflix: Wicked Hard Decisions” no-slides, case study dinner In Montreal.

1. Ask questions, form an opinion, and engage in debate

Early in my career, the head of product at Electronic Arts asked me, “What would you do?” as he contemplated a tough decision. In response, I blubbered incoherently. Later, a friend at work coached me: “Relax — he wants to know what you think. If you don’t know the answer, ask questions until you can form an opinion, then engage in debate.”

2. Make a provisional decision

Ask yourself, “What does my gut say?” Frame your opinion based on your initial instinct, then ask what additional information you need to make a final decision. Last, outline a timeline to get the missing data to make the decision.

  1. Lower prices to make the service more attractive.
  2. Do nothing.

3. Get the data

In the Blockbuster decision, finding additional information significantly improved our judgment. More data makes most decisions easier.

  1. Qualitative research, including focus groups and usability, provides clues about customer behavior and brings the voice of the customer into the building.
  2. Surveys provide more insight into what customers think with a little more predictive power than focus groups.
  3. A/B test results measure changes in customer behavior — not what they say — and are therefore more helpful than the qualitative sources above.

4. If you have 70% of the data you need to make a decision, it’s time to “decide & go.”

There’s a high cost to procrastination in decision-making. A helpful construct: If you have 70% of the data, it’s time to make a decision. Deciding with less data means you’re likely ill-informed, but searching for more information requires far too much time. There’s a diminishing return on additional data, especially if it causes you to delay a decision.

5. Evaluate whether the decision is high or low stakes

Most people overthink decisions. The reality is that many choices are low stakes and shouldn’t require excessive hand-wringing.

  1. Is the decision easily reversible? If yes, consider it a low stakes decision. If you act on your choice and get it wrong, you can always reverse it.

6. Obsess over your customers

You make decisions safely within the walls of your company, isolated from your customers. Make sure you think about them as you make decisions. Amazon famously keeps an empty seat at the table to represent their customers when making decisions.

7. Be open to significant, long-term bets

As an adviser working with startups, I help organizations to move from getting decisions right 50% of the time to 70%. But why not get it right 100% of the time? If teams get it right all the time, they’re likely not taking on enough risk.

8. Consider how your long-term strategy impacts your decision

Company and product strategy exist to inform decisions about the types of projects you seek to invest in and to nicely say no to the vast majority of ideas to maintain focus. Make sure you have a company strategy plus a product strategy that answers the question, “How will your product delight customers in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways?”

9. Does your company’s culture inform the decision?

One of the advantages of a well-articulated culture is to help employees make great decisions without talking to one another. If done right, culture eliminates the need for suffocating rules and processes and lets individuals make fast, independent decisions.

10. Fully commit to your choice

In decision-making, equivocation is just as bad as procrastination. Netflix has its “debate, decide, and do” mantra. Amazon encourages its employees to “disagree and commit.” The intent of both is the need to commit to a decision to allow it to succeed. Second-guessing yourself lowers the odds of success. Going behind others’ backs to question the wisdom of an agreed-to decision weakens alignment and makes it substantially harder for the company to succeed. Once you make a decision, commit to it.

Final thoughts

I’ve shared ten habits that I hope will improve your decision-making. Making hard decisions — about people, product, and business — is tough, especially when you’re inventing the future. You’ll often get it wrong. But when you do get it wrong, reflect on the decision and document your learnings. Over time, you’ll agonize less about each choice and gradually improve your odds of success.

Former VP/CPO at Netflix/Chegg. Now speaker, teacher, & workshop host. Learn more here: www.gibsonbiddle.com or here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gibsonbiddle/

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