Decisions in the distance

In the movies, when the hero is often on a long quest. At the beginning they are uncertain and even uninterested, but at the end of the quest, they are motivated, focused and charging forward.

The hero struggles and then finds their purpose, realising through their struggles that they now know what is important and finding the motivation to commit to something important. Sometimes that happens in real life too. I have certainly experienced a moment of clarity after feeling lost and then felt an inner joy, even as I struggled with some challenge.

Sometimes though, it seems to work the other way around. We start our quest, our project or our mission by clarifying what we want, working out how we might get it and then starting work. But then as we work and struggle, we lose sight of the original goal and somehow start to expend our energy on things that don’t really matter, while not focusing on the key decisions and actions that will bring us closer to our victory.

One possible reason for this is that, before we start, we can see the big picture, the whole landscape. But then when we get more and more involved, our vision shrinks until we are only seeing the next step, the next challenge or the annoying person who seems to be in our way. We become too emotionally caught up, too attached to our own creations or even too influenced by people who don’t have a better grasp on things than we do, to remember what we are actually there to achieve.

I remember almost launching a finance system upgrade in June, which was the end of year for our accountants. We were originally going to launch around April but we got delayed. Then we got so focused on tackling technical issues and reporting that we would get back on track that we finally got ready to launch and we were in full flight when one of the finance crew asked if we had checked if “the business were ready”.

Of course they were not ready. Not only had we failed to keep them involved but we also forgot that the end of their financial year was a terrible time to change anything. They were all working flat and would not have tolerated anything that made them lose what little sleep they were getting.

This can be described as “tunnelling” or focusing absolutely on one thing, while not seeing the things around the periphery. It is probably great for a sprinter charging for the finish line or a knight fighting a single dragon, but it is not great in a complex and changing world.

A similar thing can happen on a smaller scale, where you get into a conversation and start arguing about something you do not really care about, or you start trying to work out how to make something work, when, really, you don’t really care about it at all, or you know it is not a problem that actually needs to be solved today.

Self awareness can help

Being aware of your current emotions and how you are acting can help you make better decisions. So can pausing and reframing things. I briefly blogged about that last year in an article called “The Power of Distance“.

There is more you can do though, to put yourself in a position to make the right decision when you have to, which is a really important skill.

If you can make the right decisions when you have to, then you can focus your energy on the most important actions. And if you can focus your energy on the most important actions, then you will be far more likely to be successful, with a lot less effort and angst.

Agreeing how to decide

I have often worked with teams who are under pressure to increase their velocity, because they are perceived as slow. Often though, it is not the work that is slow, it is the decision making.

I have been in so many teams that have discussed the same issue each week for a month or more that I have lost count. I have also worked with many teams who are pushing hard against a deadline, but are paused, waiting for a decision to be made.

The shocking part though is that the time being wasted is normally NOT the time involved in making the decision. It is the time spent deferring the decision, sharing opinions without conclusions, or even asking for more information, when that information will not actually alter the decision.

It would be great if these delays were the result of stupid, careless or incompetent people, but often they are the result of ambiguity.

In some cases I have been in the room where people hinted at things, restated their opinions on things and even spent time analysing and planning, without actually being clear that there was a decision being made. Or even where there are people assuming a different decision has been made (or not made) than other people think.

The simple way to counter this is to pause before you are involved in the debate, state what the goal of the discussion, analysis or debate is and then agree that before continuing. It is easier to do this before leaping into the debate and getting too close to ideas that might not even be related to what has to be discussed.

It might seem boring but it is actually quite effective to pause and ask people to fill in the blanks in these statements:

  • I think we need to decide (blank)
  • To do that I think we should get input from (Blank) and
  • The decision will then be made by (Blank).

So two similar looking, but very different decisions would be:

  • I think we need to decide (whether to launch our upgrade). To do that we should get input from (the accounting crew) and the decision will then be made (jointly by our PM and the CFO); versus
  • I think we need to decide (whether to release the upgrade). To do that we should rely on the input of (our test team) and the decision will be made by (5 finger voting from each developer and tester).

Deciding how to decide and confirming there is a decision to make instead of just letting a discussion continue makes decisions quicker and easier.

Even better is to state when we need to decide – For example saying “Let’s make a decision now” or “I don’t think we are going to decide this now, let’s come back when we have the right people/some more information in a week.”

Planning decisions ahead of time

I have often made decisions before I had all the facts, or when I was committing to a new adventure. This is OK, but we often learn more as we go. But if we know we are going to learn more as we go then it makes sense to defer some decisions so you can base them on better information and greater wisdom.

But I know that I fall into the trap sometimes of “kicking the can down the road” or deferring a decision without actually committing to do anything. This can pointlessly delay decisions and can even lead to bad decisions being made under pressure rather than good decisions being made when there is both sufficient information available AND sufficient time to think clearly.

So rather than saying “let’s decide later” it is better to fill in the blanks in some structured commitments.

Here is what I like to do:

  • When (blank)
  • Then we will decide (blank)
  • We will need the input of (blank) and
  • We will make the decision by (blank)

For example:

  • When (it is 15 April) we will decide if (we will be able to release our upgrade before June). We will need the input of (our squad and a couple of business reps) and we will make the decision by consulting the ancient rune stones
  • When (someone asks for a scope change) we will decide (if it is happening soon). We will get input from (our key customer and our squad) and the decision will be made by the PM.

This sounds simple because it is. We are deciding when and how we will make a decision while we are relaxed and sensible and then we have a structure to help us focus when we are stressed, feeling biased, or distracted.

One last thing

So we can prepare ourselves before we need to make decisions and make life easier for ourselves. But there is still a risk that we will be making the decision when our thinking is compromised. We might be stressed (and thus likely to make bad decisions), others might be stressed or zoomed in on some pet idea (and thus likely to make bad decisions) or we might suffer from typical biases that create thinking traps for us, like escalation or falling in love with our features (and thus likely to make bad decisions).

So we can replace the wording around who will decide and whose input we need, replacing them with explicit conditions, so that we have effectively automated our decision.

The wording here can be:

  • When (blank)
  • If (blank)
  • Then (Blank)
  • Otherwise (Blank)

This might look like:

  • When we hit 30 April, if we are not ready to go live live, then we will defer any release until August, otherwise we will pick a release date within the next 2 weeks; or
  • When we have been in production for a month, if we have more than 5 users, we will continue building features, otherwise we will pause any further investment.


So we can still make bad decisions, or even disagree on the decisions we want to make, but the decisions are easier to make if we can create some distance (time) to create some clarity around the decision.


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