Just One More Dataset!
In 1815, Napoleon was going to face the British and their allies in what would become the Battle of Waterloo. The French had many more troops, and certainly could have won. But Napoleon was preoccupied with getting greater certainty by obtaining more information. While he was requesting infantrymen run to the front and bring back Intel —and then waiting for their return—the clock was running; and the British were using that time.
That delay made all the difference. When Napoleon ultimately attacked it was too late, and the British and their allies prevailed.
Many of us have this in common with Le Petit Caporel. When we’re trying to make a decision it is rational to look for relevant information. Maybe that information is in the form of data analysis, sales reports, competitive intelligence; or we might want scientific or market research, best practices or case studies. It’s quite easy to end up opening myriad threads of inquiry about almost any subject matter.
The Information Hunger Range
For some people this is not at all problematic. They have a built-in sense of what is enough background information and can easily make the decision. But for others, it becomes an overwhelming cascade.
I don’t know where I fall on the spectrum, but there have been plenty of times that I have massively over researched decisions, or even relatively inconsequential articles. It’s embarrassing to admit how much research I did before buying my new refrigerator. If you ever need to talk about fridge specs, or trends in refrigerator design, I’m your gal!
It happens in my work too. Every now and then I go down a rabbit hole and end up with reams and reams and reams of information about some subject. It’s so much more information than could possibly be useful in developing a 30 minute presentation to a virtual conference (like the one at the bottom of this email), or preparing to interview a CEO whose bio I already have.
Optionality is Good Except When It’s Not
One of the reasons that it’s so easy to get sucked into analysis paralysis is because there’s simply so much information available. That hasn’t always been the case, and so historically, in pauses between reading reports, one could restore a sense of balance. Plus, it took time to get information, and deadlines would often occur in advance of that arrival. So, there were outside forces preventing this kind of obsessive procrastination.
We know from research that the greater the number of options anyone is presented with the more likely it is they will choose nothing. We see this in consumer products, SaaS platforms and of course, in our own selection between courses of action. In business, choosing nothing is not an option –but that sense of being stuck prevents timely decisions. So, when we are stuck–the choices diminish and with them our best outcomes.
This quest for more information is not that hard to understand. Nobody wants to make the wrong decision. The consequences of a bad decision can sometimes be significant. And if, in the past, you have made bad decisions that could have been improved by more information, you took away a very clear lesson. Get all of the information upfront to be sure you’re making the right choice.
But the quest for certainty is a fool’s errand. You will never be sure in a complicated environment. All you can do is raise your level of confidence about your decision. And at some early point it’s useful to know what level of confidence simply has to be sufficient to make the decision. That’s a judgment call best made in collaboration with others for whom the decision matters. But that level of confidence cannot be 100%. And there may be decisions in which the best you can hope for is 51%.
Perhaps the thing that drives analysis paralysis is simply an inability to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. Yet, that is the very thing that defines the 21st century business environment.
Time and Opportunity vs. Certainty
Just like Napoleon, as we amass more information we also burn time. And time may be unavailable, or the opportunity that the decision addresses may be time-bound. Understanding the ramifications of a delay is one of the pieces of information that may be most important to establish right away. What is the cost of each additional hour or day? Can it be measured in dollars? Opportunity? Lost productivity, burnt cash or something else?
It’s also critical to know the timeline. How much time is available, and when must I pull the trigger?Just as you know your economic runway as a venture-funded founder, you need to know the duration until your decision deadline. That way you have a standard against which to assess the risk when you consider chasing down some new thread.
Certainty is a Pipe Dream
The fundamental truth about life is that it is a series of decisions made with no certainty. The idea that you can ever know anything for sure is itself flawed.
Maybe the only source of that sureness we crave comes from faith. But of course, faith is built upon the premise of explicitly believing something in the face of no evidence. When we begin to look at things that can be quantified through evidence, that mystical access to certainty disappears.
Instead, we have probabilities (if you are rigorous enough to assess them). Those probabilities influence our confidence in the decision. But looking for a sure thing that will provide 100% confidence is like looking for a leprechaun.
So, given that fundamental human condition of wanting certainty about our choices, and knowing we can never have it –we need tactics to pull ourselves out of the quest. [click to tweet] How can you become better able to pull the trigger when you are so sure that the next data point will be definitive? Especially when that next is the umpteenth of many that didn’t provide certainty?
What are the tools or mental approaches that may snap us out of the endless search? Here are some research-based ideas.
Establish a Deadline: There may not be a firm deadline. But do the calculus of how much time you have. At what point does the decision become less impactful? How long before the opportunity wanes? Use that deadline as a drop-dead date to have made the decision.
Use the 10-10-10 Rule: Before you begin to do significant research, create a matrix that asks the following questions: What will be the impact of this decision in 10 minutes? In 10 months? And in 10 years? Use those answers to frame how you think about the decision. It can be useful to create some perspective and remind yourself that this will not be the last or only decision you ever make. Even if you do it incorrectly, there will be opportunities to fix things.
Eliminate Most Options: Part of what happens as we gain more information is that we often proliferate the choices. That just adds to the paralysis. Decide early what the total number of options will be. And then cull as many as you can based on your level of confidence in them.
There are other tools you can use like consulting an advisor, or a coach (see below ;-)). You can make a pro and con list. You can create a matrix in which you assign points to each option based on specific criteria.
Depending on the magnitude of the decision, you may want to use all or one or none of these. But the trick is to overcome the need for certainty and be OK with the fear that you might be wrong. Certainty is illusory. Expecting to get it is a way of avoiding the discomfort and anxiety of living in this world–the actual world–in which there are only degrees of confidence, never knowing for sure.