Mar 18 2020

Decision making in uncertain times

Making decisions for your business can be hard even in normal circumstances. Right now, in this time of great uncertainty and high emotional stress it’s even harder. I’m on countless calls a day now where I’m trying to talk through with people in our universe (CEOs, GPs of other funds, fellow board members, etc.) critical decisions that in many cases will define the future for the businesses involved. How to react in a time like this is complicated and in most cases is not obvious. Just how bad things may get is unknown, as is how long this will last and what effect that will have on various business sectors and on specifics businesses is unclear. Below are a few thoughts that I’m using to guide my own decision making in this time of crisis.

  • Don’t Panic. I say this all the time. 1) Don’t Panic; 2) Gather data; 3) Make informed decisions. The order here is important. This is especially true when times are crazy and there’s even more pressure to make rapid decisions. Take a minute to breath and calm yourself. Think about what data you can gather that will help inform your decision making and what time frame is reasonable to allow yourself to make that decision. Give yourself a little space to collect the information you need to make as informed a decision as you can given the unknowns that will inevitably exist as well as the time frame that’s reasonable for the decision at hand.
  • Move quickly but don’t rush. Related and not in opposition to #1, you can still make decisions quickly and decisively, but do so without rushing. When you’re stressed it’s easy to interpret that stress as a need to just get things done. Don’t fall into that trap. You can still move rapidly without rushing.
  • Prioritize. When you’re making quick decisions and have a lot of information hitting you at once, it’s tempting to try to just get things off your plate. But that’s a bad way to organize your work even in the best of times. I’m a consistent user of Asana (but you could use Trello, Todoist, Wunderlist, etc) to prioritize my days. It’s especially helpful when things feel out of control to have the framework that a well though through task list provides. Use it to help you prioritize the decisions you need to make that are urgent and to keep track of what’s left to do.
  • Be comfortable with ambiguity. One of the most challenging things about making decisions for your business right now is how much we don’t know. That’s disconcerting but you’re just going to have to deal with it. Hopefully your business is well instrumented so at least you’re getting some data in. Take in what you can, recognize that you won’t have perfect information and make the best decisions you can at the time, recognizing that some decisions will need to be revisited when you have more information.
  • You can’t control what you can’t control. There’s no sense in focusing on things that are out of your control. So focus in on the things that are within your control.
  • Make contingency plans. One of the things that I’m encouraging companies that I work with to do is to engage in some scenario planning. I’ll have a longer post up tomorrow about this but the general idea is to free yourself from pressure in the moment by coming up with multiple plans of action. If we see X we’ll do Y (times a bunch of different scenarios). Your thinking ahead of time will more likely be clearer than in the moment. And you can revisit your thinking over time (before you’ve actually had to implement what you’re working through) and have the benefit of multiple looks at the same set of problems.

Overall I’m seeing high degrees of anxiety and concern about making the “right” decision. That’s understandable given the circumstances. Recognize that no one really knows what’s going to happen here and that your job is to make the best decisions you can. “Right” doesn’t exist in times like these.