Making fast (humble) decisions

Jenny George - 25 June 2021

I read in a Harvard Business Review article that speed of decision making is far more important than the sheer accuracy or quality of decision making. Now obviously you don’t want to make terrible choices consistently. But the article was making the point that delaying decisions to get more information or to be truly sure of what you are planning to do can have a surprisingly poor outcome compared with making the best decision you can at an earlier stage. Even though some of these faster decisions turn out to be wrong, the advantages gained by speed in general outweigh the downsides.

I can attest to this personally. The biggest mistake of my career, when judged by the financial loss that resulted, was delaying a decision. We had a division of the company that didn’t fit strategically into the rest of the organisation and that was hamstrung by tight government regulation. It needed considerable scale and investment to be worth pursuing and we didn’t have the scale or the inclination to invest in it. If I had been decisive at the time and sold this division, we might have been able to sell it as a small but intact business for a reasonable amount of money. Instead, it languished for two years and dwindled to the point where we had no choice but to close it and gained nothing.

Conversely, executives who have worked for me who have been capable of working at speed and making quick decisions have been worth their weight in gold. When they combine this attribute with humility it is truly outstanding.

Ideally, quick decisions work well when the organisation is able to detect a mistake quickly and change course. “Fail fast” is the mantra in start-ups and it’s a great idea for any organisation. If, however, you have executives with big egos who are incapable of admitting mistakes, then quick decision making can backfire badly. One mistake in a decision can lead to escalating commitment, sometimes called the “sunk cost fallacy”, where more and more good money or energy is invested to justify the decision or try to rescue the outcome. Ideally, quick decision-makers are able to hold their egos lightly and admit failures so that a new decision can be made.

If you want to see this kind of humble but quick decision-making spread through your organisation, a great way to encourage it is to explicitly talk about and reward experimentation. Framing decisions as experiments does a few things:

  1. It takes the pressure off the decision needing to be perfect
  2. It encourages people to pay attention to feedback, fail or succeed fast, evaluate the outcome and change direction if required
  3. It helps reduce the link between a decision and the decision-makers ego

Ideally you should be checking your ego regularly anyway and trying hard to be a humble decision-maker. Every one of my bosses who has had this kind of humility has been a pleasure to work for. And they have (coincidentally?) usually been a committed Christian.
Humility in decision making is a beautiful thing and a wonderful attribute for Christian leaders to aspire to and consciously build into their working life. When you couple that with speed you have a recipe for decision making that should translate into great outcomes.

Jenny George
CEO of Converge International