Stop Sweating Decision-Making

You don't need every last scrap of evidence before making a call. Take a cue from startups and shorten the deliberation time frame.

Decision-making is a critical facet of being a leader. The ability to make sound decisions and make them quickly shapes how someone is perceived within their company and their industry as an effective (or ineffective) leader. It’s also essential for the business itself. A company cannot thrive, innovate or push the envelope if its leadership is constantly slow-walking or second-guessing the key decisions it needs to make.

Executing quick yet sound decision-making is a problem that many large, established corporations struggle with. But it’s one that’s often absent in the startup world, where flexibility and a “clock-is-ticking” urgency for everything fuel an instinct not only for making good decisions, but for doing so as quickly as possible.

Speaking as someone who has consulted for large organizations and worked at a startup before making the jump to National Grid, I’ve seen firsthand how the leaders at startups can make major, company-altering decisions almost instinctually. I’ve also seen how torturous and long-winded decision-making at bigger corporations can be. Sometimes deliberation over big decisions is important, but not to the point where it’s actively stifling a company’s growth or its capacity to innovate.

Taking a startup lens to decision-making

When you’re living in the corporate world, it’s easy to become stuck in the bubble of a very narrow set of viewpoints and ways of thinking—all without realizing you’re in a bubble at all. I started out as a consultant to larger corporations in the UK and it wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. some years later and joined a startup that I truly realized just how different that environment was.

While this sounds like an obvious observation, there’s a level of speed, flexibility and urgency in startups that you can’t appreciate until you’re immersed in them—especially if you’re coming at it from the other side. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there’s no greater necessity in the startup world than the need to raise a ton of money in a short amount of time when you have none. That drives startup leaders to make big decisions, boldly and quickly, because they can’t afford not to. Without that speed and ambition, your company just flat out won’t be around for too long.

Naturally, this doesn’t apply to most larger corporations—but the leaders of these companies should operate like it does. You must act like everything is on the line. Don’t spend time second-guessing or dawdling just because you don’t have a ticking clock literally hanging over your head. Don’t feel you need to be overly precious with gathering every last scrap of information, from every possible stakeholder, before making a call. Just make the call.

Corporate leaders might be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with moving so quickly on big decisions. But you can make yourself more comfortable with it simply by doing it and making adjustments for the next time a similar situation arises. Learn not to overthink things and remember that making decisions quickly doesn’t belong exclusively to startups. It’s an ability any leader can pick up.

Avoid stifling innovation

Why are startups hotbeds of innovative, creative thinking? How do they generate so many new ideas, approaches and paradigms—especially when they operate in environments of so much ambiguity and uncertainty? The second question answers the first. It’s because startups face so much existential uncertainty that they can’t afford to sit idly by or weigh decisions in an overly deliberative process. The need to act quickly is what gets results and drives innovation.

The best startups, after all, don’t just invent something out of nothing and then try to push it on their audience. They instead start with the customer—identifying their problems and pain points, and building solutions to address those needs. Startups have to do it that way, because if they get the process wrong and put their eggs in a basket that doesn’t go over well with their target audience, there’s no fallback plan.

That entrepreneurial spirit cuts two ways: not only does it incentivize startups to act quickly and operate free of the same institutional norms that bigger companies abide by, but it also inspires a working culture where employees feel like their contributions and ideas matter, that what they have to offer contributes to the overall vision and mission of the business. Because it does. Leaders at bigger corporations need to make sure they’re cultivating this same culture where every employee feels like their contributions have value to the broader organization. This kind of communal spirit doesn’t need to be something exclusive to startups.

There are certain realities that big enterprises have to deal with that startups simply don’t, and that can’t be helped. But a sluggishness to decision-making doesn’t have to be one of them. Leaders at larger, more established companies can take a cue from their startup cousins: moving to act more quickly on making decisions, feeling emboldened to make those calls without going through the motions of time-intensive review cycles, and further inspiring your people—who make innovation a reality.


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