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Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Poorly

Why you shouldn’t let the fear of not being ready stop you from pursuing what’s important

You know the adage, “if you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all.” I admit this perspective feels better than suggesting a thing worth doing is worth doing poorly. When would you ever want to do something poorly? I know I don’t.

You’re a leader. People expect you to make quick, decisive decisions and to be right all the time. Sometimes your decisions work out and sometimes they don’t. The consequences range from inconsequential to disastrous. That’s a lot of pressure.

Your fear of making the wrong decision or not doing a thing right may keep you from moving forward. That’s a good thing, right? Taking more time to gather additional information, to analyze your options, and to be sure of the decision ensures a better outcome…doesn’t it?

Yes and no.

The Internet allows you to research the pros and cons of every option available to you. Like me, have you ever performed a simple search that led to an endless link-clicking exercise that ended hours later? Instead of assurance, are you left more confused than ever as to what the right action is?

According to psychologist Barry Schwartz in “Paradox of Choice,” while increased choice allows us to achieve objectively better results, it also leads to greater anxiety and indecision, otherwise known as analysis paralysis.

“Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90 percent, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.” — Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

Not having all the answers is not a good excuse for not proceeding. You will rarely have all the answers up front. You won’t likely figure it all out in planning. There will often be unknowns and some risks.

I’m not suggesting you abandon your threshold for quality and accuracy. The point is, don’t let the fear of not knowing enough or being good enough (yet) stop you from pursuing what’s important in your business.

You need quality and timely information to make sound decisions. Too little information is wreckless. Extraneous information won’t likely increase your odds of success and may cause you to miss opportunities altogether.

As Bezos alludes, there’s a balance — that’s what I’ll delve into.

  • A Bias for Action
  • Decision Dilemmas
  • The Best Time to Act

A Bias for Action

Having a bias for action means you’re more inclined to get started than you are to over-analyze. That takes a bit of courage and a shift in perspective.

Having a bias for action is so important to Amazon that it’s one of their leadership principles.

“Bias for Action: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.”

If it’s a good enough idea to spend time on, it’s good enough to get started on to see if it really is a good idea. The best way to prove out an idea is to do something. Start with what you know, start small, experiment, and validate. This approach reduces risk. It leads to better outcomes.

You’ll learn more and achieve more getting started, even if “poorly” and not fully thought out, than you will by thinking about it incessantly.

As I fleshed out in, “Achieve Better Quality Through Quantity,” the sooner you produce something to assess, the sooner you can learn from it and adjust.

Before you jump headfirst into your next decision, let’s unpack your decision dilemmas — the cost of deciding and the cost of deferring.

Decision Dilemmas

Have you ever made a decision that you later wished you had waited to make because some new information came along that would have influenced you in another direction? Or, perhaps you recall a time when you delayed a decision just a little too long and then missed out on some opportunity?

It is said, “hindsight is 20/20.” This means you can never truly know how something will turn out beforehand. The valuable lessons are learned after you make the decision and act on it.

Sometimes things work out as expected, or close enough. Other times not so much. One thing is for sure, it’s easy to judge what should and should not have been done after seeing the results.

It’s the undesirable outcomes that give you pause — causing you to slow down next time. Not wanting to make a mistake, you may find yourself being more deliberate — looking for more data and analyzing your options more.

You have tremendous pressure on you to act and to be right. Sometimes it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There is a potential cost to every decision.

The Cost of Deciding

The fact is, you know the least about a situation earlier in the process than you will later on. This is why large up-front plans make no sense. The less you truly know and understand about a thing, the less confidence you should have in the decision. Therefore, making a decision too early is risky and the chances are you may be wrong.

“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” — Warren Buffett

The outcome of making a decision too early and then doing the wrong thing is rework, waste, and potentially missed opportunities.

You cannot avoid sometimes doing the wrong thing, because all you really work with are assumptions that need to be validated, but you can reduce your risk by waiting a little longer — to better know what you’re doing.

The Cost of Deferring

On the flip side, there’s a cost of deferring your decision — be it delaying or choosing to not make a decision.

What is the risk of doing nothing? What happens if you do not make this decision right now?

Not every decision needs to be made — at least not right now. As long as the cost of deferring is low, you can afford to wait. But wait on what?

What you are waiting for is more information from which to inform the decision — to better know what you’re doing. To reiterate Bezos, you’re looking for about 70% of the information you think you need to move forward.

How do you know when you’ve waited too long? If you wait too long to make a decision, the opportunity that was available may very well be gone. You certainly don’t want to miss the boat. There’s no definitive answer to that line in the sand, but what you’re shooting for is the last responsible moment.

The Best Time to Act

The decisions you will regret the least are the ones made at the right time — at the last responsible moment.

Waiting until the last responsible moment may sound irresponsible. It certainly goes against everything you were taught by your parents and teachers, or what you have come to expect at the workplace. However, waiting until the last responsible moment is the most optimal time to act.

As the graphic below demonstrates, there is a cost of deciding and a cost to deferring. The last responsible moment is that perfect intersection.

Graph showing the cost of deferring goes up over time; the cost of deciding goes down over time; and the last responsible moment is the intersection between the two.
Image by Jimmie Butler

Sounds great, I can hear you say, but how are you supposed to know when you’re approaching that intersection?

You can’t know exactly when you’ll reach that intersection, but you can learn to get closer to the last responsible moment.

If you’re one to make quick decisions with little information, you’ll benefit by waiting for additional information before you need to act. Sometimes new information takes you in a different direction and the original decision is no longer necessary.

If you’re one to struggle to make a decision, always wanting more information, you’ll benefit from pulling the trigger sooner. It can be uncomfortable at first. The goal is to know just enough to get started and adjust along the way. After all, you’ll never be 100% sure of anything in the beginning anyway.

Final Thoughts

Your business lives and dies on your decisions. You want to act quickly to capture opportunities, but the fear of mistakes can freeze all decision-making.

If a thing is worth doing, it captures your time and attention. You want to do it right the first time, so you wait, often missing out on incredible learning opportunities that can improve your idea through iteration. Fear sometimes causes you to miss the boat entirely.

The last responsible moment is the best time to make a decision, but it’s not easy to know when that intersection is fast approaching.

I wish there was a magic formula to share, but there isn’t. Each decision, each action to take, has a different window of opportunity; a different risk profile. The lower the perceived risk, the sooner you can move forward, learn, and adjust. The higher the perceived risk, the more you should delay.

You can improve your timing and your outcomes by understanding your tendencies.

Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly — meaning you won’t be perfect upfront, so stop trying to be.
  • You know the least early on, so early decisions should feel less confident. Early decisions are riskier due to the impacts of pending changes.
  • Focus on what you know today and assess the risks. If it’s low risk, act now, learn, and adjust.
  • Not every decision needs to be made, at least not now.
  • The higher the risk, the longer you should wait to gather more information. Gather as much information as you can, but look to pull the trigger at about 70%.
  • Understand your tendencies in decision-making. Adjust your timing and assess the outcomes.

“The timing of your decision is just as important as the decision you make.” — John C. Maxwell

I write about strategy, business, leadership, product development, and Agile. Challenge what you know. Get short weekly insights in your inbox — sign up on this page.

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