Some years ago, I learned a great lesson in decision making from Lieutenant General Stephen B. Croker, a retired U.S. Air Force commander who taught military doctrine to two- and three-star generals. We were discussing how soldiers make decisions amid uncertainty on a battlefield, something that was part of the new landscape of military warfare.
"Imagine," he said, "you're driving Humvee at 50 miles per hour through an area of insurgents and IEDs. A sandstorm engulfs your vehicle, visibility is near zero. What would you do?"
My response was, "I'd slow down, of course."
"That's the last thing we want you to do. You need to keep going," he said.
He went on to explain that if uncertainty is slowing you down, then it's also slowing down your enemy. Standing still is what I call a non-decision. If you want to distance yourself from someone, keep moving while they are slowing down. When you come out of the sandstorm, you'll be that much farther ahead.
Business owners are fighting a different sort of battle now, but the same rule applies. You often have to keep moving despite a lack of data and information.
As an entrepreneur, I can assure you that you will rarely have all of the data you need to make any decision bulletproof. It's most often the case that the greater the payback associated with the decision, the less data you will have to justify it. It's precisely because uncertainty paralyzes most people that it also creates an immense opportunity for those who keep moving to gain a distinct competitive advantage. Think back to my Humvee example.
More recently, on March 2, my home state of Massachusetts had one confirmed case of Covid-19. We were still a week from the WHO calling Covid-19 a pandemic.
When I spoke with colleagues, investors, and even event organizers about the idea, it was universally dismissed as unnecessary. The data just didn't support such a disruptive investment. The consensus among people I shared the idea with was, let's just ride out the lull in the events business and see what happens before investing in something new.
Within two weeks, every speaking engagement and live event had been indefinitely postponed or canceled. And yet, Zoom's stock price was still at about $107. As this article is being written, it's at $227. Did I know something everyone else didn't? No. I was following a simple decision-making maxim that I'd learned years ago: The best time to speed up is when the lack of visibility causes everyone else to slow down.
Take Elon Musk's SpaceX. When SpaceX was founded in 2002, no amount of data would have supported Musk's decision to build a commercial venture to ferry humans. I vividly recall being at the launch of the last space shuttle, in 2011. I was invited to see Musk's Dragon capsule, which was on display. I just as vividly recall how crazy everyone thought he was. Most people were to busy grieving the end of NASA instead of building the future.
Some of the best decisions defy data analysis. As entrepreneurs, we take on ridiculously ambitious projects that no rational person would touch. If data does exist, it serves only to show how foolish we really are.
Still, wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a way to somehow provide a methodology by which to make those decisions? There is, and it involves answering these four simple questions.
1. Are you doing what you and your team will be proud to have done when you look back?
The key to the most important decisions is getting people to understand why the decision is being made at an emotional level that they can attach to with pride and passion. Not every decision will be the right one, but every decision can be made with the right intent.
2. Does it reflect your core values?
Values need to be the foundation of tough decision making. Be clear on those values, speak them honestly, and live by them. They may stem from morals, cultural heritage, family, or faith. The founder doesn't exist who has not at least once been on his or her knees praying to make payroll--even atheists find religion in those moments. Without clear values, you will lack the compass with which to make it through the dense fog of uncertainty.
3. Have you accepted the consequences of failure?
This is key. Understand the potentially flawed consequences of your decision, and be prepared to live with them. Regrets are horrid bedfellows. So, think carefully about what it will mean to make a bad call and be ready to own it. You're the leader, because you're at the top of the accountability food chain.
4. Is everyone else being slowed or hampered by the same lack of data?
Humans are herd animals. We follow leaders and we typically look at the behavior of our peers to determine what our own behavior should be. That's why we all slow down collectively when uncertainty increases. But what I have found consistently is that it's at these same times that the greatest opportunities emerge for those willing to break from the pack.
None of this means that you shouldn't factor whatever data you do have into your decision, but it's actually in the absence of data that some of the greatest opportunities emerge from the sandstorm.