We've all been there...
Well into a difficult project, dozens of balls in the air, everyone's hair is on fire, big decisions looming and you: Just. Can't. Pull. The. Trigger.
Stress has a weird and sometimes unexpected impact on our decision making. Sometimes we batten down the hatches and become more conservative as the going gets rough, and sometimes we throw caution to the wind and take greater risk in the face of greater loss. We are, in other words, unpredictable under stress.
One of the most common ways this manifests itself is at work is a phenomenon known as 'Analysis Paralysis'. You know what I'm talking about: When faced with a complex decision point you dig deep into the data, others' research, and past benchmarks - hoping to identify a clear path forward. Sometimes the digging pays off quickly and you can move past the difficult juncture. Sometimes, though, you just find yourself buried under mountains of increasingly complex data and what do you do? Pile on more data; more research.
Casting about for a 'silver bullet'.
This is where the paralysis kicks in: Your boss wants to know what path you have decided on. You don't have an answer. The logical stress response? Throw more analysis at it! You've fallen into a deathly tail-spin and the project has still not made any forward progress. Deep inside the bundle of twitchy stress-palooza you have become, you are looking for the Aha! - a moment where the data crystallizes into a Damascus Road experience and the well-lit path stretches out before you. I hate to say it...that's probably not going to happen.
Recognizing this in yourself ahead of time makes a huge difference, and there are some things you can do to help push through the danger zone:
Put it in a box
Yup. Put it in a box and don't let it out. Timeboxing forces you up against a reasonably informed decision point within a finite window. This method is simple, but has great psychological effect.
To be clear, don't try to cram more research/work into a smaller window of time. Instead, let the timebox naturally limit scope and reduce runway. Set a hard date by which you must make a decision, write it down, share it with your team and your boss. Then stick to it! You will most likely feel that there is more to know when decision time comes, but anticipate that feeling, keep your focus on what you do know and make the decision.
"Life is made up of a series of judgments on
insufficient data, and if we waited to run down
all our doubts, it would flow past us."
I have found that reduced scope almost always reduces stress and decision paralysis.
Look at the big picture
From a priority perspective, where does this decision fit into the big picture? What is the relative value to the rest of the project? Under stress, these difficult decision points have a way of blowing themselves out of proportion. Sometimes they start out a novelty balloon animal and end up a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade entry. Do a quick mental exercise: What happens if this decision goes completely sideways? What is the worst that can happen to the overall project? Can you make a decision, fail fast if necessary, and come back to it? If not great, is it at least good? Sometimes good enough is all you need.
Put decisions in their place and don't let them inflate their own egos.
Lean on experience
Chances are, you know people who have done this before. Lean on the collective experience of your network and keep your ears open. Don't look for specific instructions as much as patterns and principles in their experience. Overall, what worked and what didn't? Can you apply the principles to your project?
And then there is your experience. You've been through a lot at this point. Even general life experiences (kids, relationships, that weird thing in Mexico) have given you data and, more importantly, wisdom. Carry it with you and learn from your own past.
Breaking up doesn't have to be hard
Don't be married to your original decision - are you ready to adapt and change? If a decision proves to be less than ideal, don't drag out the relationship. Call a spade a spade and change course quickly.
Whatever you do, don't mentally tie your personal pride or self-image to the decision. Be honest with your team: you made a mistake, but you recognize it and you have a solution. Point to the methods by which you arrived at your decision: timeboxing, prioritizing, experience - help them see what you see and pull them along with you. Just do not take it personally.
I'll spare you the speech about Thomas Edison or Isaac Newton. You know the drill. You don't get anywhere without trying, failing, and learning - in that order. Dreams and hypotheticals are nice, but real world actions and reactions are where the learning really happens.
Who are you?
The most valuable decision maker is not the one that magically makes the right choice every time and has a perfect record. There are no unicorns. The most valuable decision maker is the one that can make the call under fire, learn from mistakes with eyes wide open and make better calls each time through the cycle.
Happy decision making!