I recently spoke with a group of international students for a question and answer session about my entrepreneurial experience. To my surprise, I was not prepared for how thoughtful and tough the questions were.
They students were very interested in how entrepreneurs made important and difficult business decisions. Their questions were very situational ("What would you do if"), and they pressed for specific answers, as if they would be tested on it later. In almost every case, I had to start my response with, "It depends." After several questions like this, I stepped back to address the bigger lesson about entrepreneurial decision-making.
When it comes to being an entrepreneur, there is no right or wrong decision. There are only decisions.
For certain, entrepreneurs can be better prepared to make business decisions and find answers with planning. A thoughtful and strategic business plan is critical for mapping out the direction of the business and to plan for the big decisions that will eventually need to be made.
The most difficult decisions, however, and those with the most threatening outcomes, are scenarios nobody can foresee and will not be included in any business plan. These scenarios arise without notice and often put you in "fight or flight" mode.
Moreover, these decisions do not have a "right" answer, and in many cases, they involve only bad and worse answers. More important, when faced with these situations, there are no books, YouTube tutorials, or iPhone apps to reference in order to help make a better decision.
Instead, making good -- or in most cases, "less bad" -- decisions in these situations comes down to a few key characteristics, ones learned mostly through experience and failure (more of the latter). And while they cannot be studied to perfection, every entrepreneur can and should be aware of how they affect the decision-making process.
Ethics, values and empathy
Together, these make up guiding principles. Thinking about and understanding your own set of guiding principles is critical for decision making, especially when faced with a sensitive situation that requires a decision without a clear outcome. And because many of the most difficult business decisions will have undesirable outcomes, it is your guiding principles that will help you accept whatever outcome occurs.
The ability to make decisions comes down to having a "get things done" attitude. Entrepreneurs need to make decisions when most information is unavailable, the outcome is unclear at best, and the process of making the decision seems overwhelming. In the end, however, only one person can make these decisions, and great entrepreneurs have the ability to forge ahead in light of all the ambiguity.
Lastly, making business decisions simply comes down to solving problems. Most "great" business decisions we hear about are often entrepreneurs finding a solution to an unsolved problem. More than likely, however, these outcomes were preceded by a number of "other" decisions -- and probably quite a few "bad" ones as well. With no precedence, roadmap or answer key in most situations, entrepreneurs will be successful if they just know how to create their own solutions.
In the end, remember that entrepreneurship is not like math -- there is no right answer, and you most certainly will not be provided with an answer key. Entrepreneurship is about exploring and setting a course into uncharted territory. You do not measure success by the number of correct decisions, but rather by being content with the destination at which you arrive.