Just say no: the art of making decisions

First, my apology, and then we’ll move on. I am sorry for not posting in so long. I do not know what happened. I enjoy writing and I’m not doing enough of it. My days have turn into evenings, which turn into nights, which turn into early mornings, which turn into 2-3 hours of sleep. Most of you know that I am OK on little sleep, but I need 4-5 hours to feel good, and I haven’t been getting that lately. I think the question becomes… what have I been doing?

We’ve been working on budgets at Spreadshirt. We are doing a more extensive round than before, so that means lots of meeting and work. Along with this, we are also talking about our priorities for 2008. These are always fun processes because you are talking about the future, but they are also wrought with one word, “No.”

“No” is a post I’ve been meaning to write for awhile. First, let’s take the definition of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary says no is “a denial”, “a refusal”, “the negative side or party”, and “a person who votes against a proposal”. Ouch, such harsh words for two little characters. But, it shows how powerful language is. These two letters often bring up lots of emotion. So, whenver I’m saying “no”, I try to think how the other party thinks about the decision. What does it mean from their perspective?

Remember you hired your team to be the best advocates for their department/group. If they aren’t passionate about your saying no, then are they the best advocates? You need to remember that there is trade off between local (departmental) and global (corporate) optimization, but there should be push back on a no vote. Because, as defined, no is a denial. (Note… Your team won’t always understand your reasons for this denial, but as a leader, try.)

As more help in understanding why “no” is so hard, I had a revelation a few years ago when reading a terrific Fortune article by Jerry Useem on decision making. The piece that I repeat to myself (for two+ years now): (bold added by me)

Start with the Latin decidere. It means, literally, “to cut off.” Decisions force us to foreclose other opportunities–jobs not taken, strategies never attempted, options unpursued. Would that sales gig in Houston have worked out better? You’ll never know.

This little piece helped me understand why people have problems with decisions. I never have had a problem with decisions… in business, in personal life, in shopping even. I make a decision and move on. Though not conscious, I think it is because I don’t look at a decision as cutting off anything, but rather the flip side… I look forward to the road taken, or at least, if the road looks bumpy, I look forward to having a road to take, rather than sitting at the crossroads waiting. Thanks to Mr. Useem, I now understand the struggle with decisions more, and can help coach them to the right answer.

So, as I said when I started this blog, I want to learn from you too. What is your experience with decision making? Are you consistent across business and personal decisions? Do you struggle with any particular types of decisions? Do you think that these definitions and latin roots have an impact on how we look at decisions and “nos”? 

P.S. Jerry Useem also interviewed Jim Collins on decision making and it was a good piece too.

What is on my shirt today? What else?

I (heart)


6 thoughts on “Just say no: the art of making decisions

  1. In the past 5 years I have been learning to make decisions. I have long envied the ease at which other people were able to do things – study abroad, change jobs, buy shoes – but until more recently I didn’t realize it was about making decisions.

    Fortunately I had a mentor that helped me to understand more about decisions a few years ago so I have been much more conscious of decision making and aversion to decision making.

    I know that over the past year you have talked about making decisions at Spreadshirt and have talked about how we can gather the information we can and make the best decision – I think you said something along the line of hopefully things will work out, sometimes they won’t, when things don’t work out we will deal with it. I think you were wearing an I (heart) decisions t-shirt earlier this year and I know I told a couple of my friends about it.

    Learning about making decisions has been really helpful to me at work and probably even more helpful in my life outside of Spreadshirt. I am learning to be more understanding of why people make decisions and why they don’t. I appreciate your ability to try to understand at those of us who are “decision challenged” and it is really helpful to learn about how you think about decisions.

  2. “De-cidere / to cut off” is really true. Once you made the decision you can hardly get back to your old status.
    People who are not able to make decisions have a problem with changing things.
    As far as I know the world changes everyday and we are not able to stop that changing. This might be one of the biggest truths about our life here on earth.
    When we make decisions, we are able to change the world / the business or our own life how we want.
    If we did not others would decide for us and we would be no longer free.
    Decisions are essential to our being. In my view, people who do not decide – those people are afraid of the world being changed. But there is no escape from that.
    Too much philosophy?

  3. There you are! I was actually just thinking about you in a reponse I posted on WWD about the potential pitfalls of being one’s own boss and where does one go to make up for the lack of a boss to fulfill some key roles such as outside perspective, challenging ideas, etc. You’ve definitely been an inspiration to me!

    Regarding decision-making, I personally think decisions are easy. But the follow-through is often hard. Decisions often feel like such an accomplishment it’s easy to rest on those laurels and then…nothing happens, the circumstances change, and you have to decide all over again. Then again, maybe that inertia is also a part of the fear of change?

  4. When I need to make a decision, I ask myself if I have enough information — if it’s moderate to high risk. (Taking a new job is a big decision, trying a new restaurant is not.) If don’t think I have enough information, I ask myself what the specific, minimum things I need to know that I don’t know are and get those answers. Minimum and specific is important here: that is how I avoid the paradox of choice and making myself miserable. I think I’m consistent with with this approach across my work and home life.

    The decisions I struggle with most are ones that have high impact on other people. When I think about it though, those are all about my anticipating dealing with the impact afterward, not in making the “right” choice. I generally know what the right choice is for me, though I’m sometimes less certain about living with the consequences. I don’t think of decisions as cutting off options, but in being sure (or at least comfortable enough) with the path I’m on.

  5. WOW, Jenny, Amie, Julian, and Lindsay… what great comments. Thank you for adding them.

    Lindsay, your point about having a mentor is a terrific one. It is much easier to understand the “how” with clear examples.

    Julian, you are right… the world changes, whether we do or not. We need to realize that making decisions puts us in control.

    Amie, I had not thought of the point about decisions being easy but executing them being hard. I’m going to have to pay more attention, as perhaps sometimes I think decisions aren’t made, and it is really that they aren’t implemented.

    Jenny, ahhhhh… minimum, specific… similar to minimum viable! 🙂 I agree… there is more anxiety with decisions when others are involved.

    Again, thanks for all of your thoughts!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s