An indecision is actually a very bad decision. It is an implicit decision for the status quo. It is worse than an explicit decision regardless of how bad that decision turns out to be. In my experience, our indecisiveness is caused by various reasons involving trade-offs.
Trade-offs are companions of decisions throughout the life cycle of a decision. A trade-off is an exchange for which we give up something valuable to get something valuable. In financial analysis of a business decision, a trade-off is called the opportunity cost. It is the value of the most preferred path out of the paths not chosen. In other words by deciding on a path, we give away the pursuit of value in the most preferred alternative to get the opportunity to pursue value in the path we have chosen instead.
Trade-offs make decision-making difficult. It can be tough to identify options, to evaluate them, and to make a choice; however, trade-offs can also make decision-making exciting when we recognize, acknowledge, respect, embrace, and even play with them skillfully.
Here are the most common reasons I see for indecisiveness:
1. We fall in love with playing with alternatives
The very act of deciding is a trade-off. In making a decision, we give up playing with our options and sweep them off our mind’s desktop so we can focus on executing the decision. When the fun of playing with our options becomes more interesting to us than the decision, we are stalled in indecision. My decision to pick a topic for this post, for example, terminated a few days of enjoyable indecisiveness.
2. We don’t want to pay the opportunity cost
Sometimes the opportunity cost is too much for us to bear. Even though we are confident that our analysis of alternatives is comprehensive and our mind knows why the best option won against the others, our heart weeps at the thought of losing the other choices.
Very early on in the grounds-up development of Intel Custom Foundry, it was clear to us that we needed to build a design platform for our leading edge silicon technology offering in order for customers to commit and start doing chip designs for manufacturing with us. Leading edge at the time was 32 nanometers (nm), so we naturally started investing our engineering resources in building a design platform for 32nm technology.
Several months into it, and after discussions with potential customers, it became evident that the lead-time for getting the design platform ready would cause us to miss the timing of many leading edge chip designs for the 32nm technology node. More importantly, we concluded that if we did not want to miss the leading edge designs on the next (22nm) technology generation, we would have to invest in the 22nm design platform right away.
However, we did not have the time, resources, nor the experience to do two technology design platforms at once. Hence we had to pick. Do we continue and finish the 32nm platform and let 22nm happen when it happens? Or do we abandon 32nm as sunk cost and switch our focus to 22nm design platform so we can get synchronized with the flow of Moore’s law?
The latter option was the best option to maximize revenue over 10 years. The former option was clearly the second best, with a significant gap in value. Tradeoffs were clear. The heart needed time to grieve for the 32nm platform. Even though it had once been our first choice, it had become our second best choice. We limited our grieving to a single staff discussion before pulling the plug.
I can only imagine the grieving Andy Grove and Gordon Moore experienced when they decided to get out of the memory business in the 1980s in favor of microprocessors.
3. We are past the point of diminishing returns in our analysis
Indecision sometimes creeps into the decision-making process without our knowledge. We think we are spending the necessary time to develop, consider and analyze options before we decide. Indeed, making a decision based on too narrow a set of options or on shallow analysis, is a bad decision, but so is a decision made much later than when it is required.
It is important to remember that intuition, judgment and analysis are all equally important in decision making. At some point our intuition must come to the rescue of our over-worked analysis. The point to exercise our intuition is contextual and our judgment must make the call.
In most decisions, I have no problem making that call, but when it comes to restructuring organizations, I tend to go in an analysis loop and suffer indecisiveness. During my analysis, I give birth to new options that demand their own share of analytical time. My challenge is in settling for the least imperfect structure made of imperfect human beings and managed by an imperfect me. Knowing this weakness, I am specially vigilant against indecisiveness when it comes to organizational structuring.
4. We are afraid of failure to realize the value of the decision
It is ideal for decision makers to be also responsible for its execution. This ensures quality of decision and emotional commitment for its execution. Once a decision is made, the expected value of the decision is not a given. Actual value depends on the ever-changing environmental landscape and the effort we put into execution of the decision. Making a decision requires us to take the risk that we may fail to achieve the expected value of the decision. In my lifetime, I have worked with colleagues who are afraid of the responsibility of executing the decision and the risk that they may fail to deliver. This fear of failure is one of the reasons for indecisiveness.
An explicit decision regardless of its outcome, is much better than an indecision. Decision making is an activity. Decisions are results. We can’t afford to get stuck in an activity and lose sight of the result. Sensing we are stuck in an indecision and shaking ourselves out of it is important for effectiveness.
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