How to Make Big Decisions When Facing an Unpredictable Future

5 min read
Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. Business owners are being asked to create a vision and a strategy for an uncertain future. Many entrepreneurs are struggling to predict what the next 6 weeks might have in store for them, let alone having a strategy is for 6 months or several years. In times like these, we need to examine our thinking style.

Let me introduce you to two ways of thinking:

1. Binary thinking – right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad, start/finish.

2. Directional thinking – moving forward, a step closer, lighter grey/darker grey, an experiment, an opportunity to learn, smart-ish, safer, right-ish, wrong-ish, finished-ish.

Binary thinking feels safe. It creates a world where things are black or white. They are happening or not happening. Something is good or it’s bad. A person performs well or isn’t performing. A deal is in writing or it’s not a deal.

Related: 9 Ways to Combat Decision Fatigue

In the binary world, there are start dates and finish dates. Things happen sequentially in a linear, logical, orderly fashion.

The largest and most powerful part of your brain loves the idea that this is how the world works. It craves the clarity of a world that unfolds in a straight line. It’s happy if there’s a plan and it takes comfort that if we stick to it, everything will be ok.

Sadly this isn’t how the world currently works and it’s not how entrepreneurial success typically happens either. Success is always in a mess, it unfolds from a world of grey decisions that are ‘directionally correct’.

Success is a network effect from dozens of simultaneous side projects coming together over time. The decisions are never easy at the level of high performance – they involve trade-offs and risks.

The way success looks from a distance is as if it was a plan that came to fruition. The way it is behind the scenes is a mess that was moving in vaguely the right direction most of the time. It turns out that it’s actually normal for successful entrepreneurs to be thinking directionally rather than linearly.

When you look closely at successful people, few of their decisions were black and white and obviously safe. Safe decisions don’t provide a payoff. Safe and clear decisions are actually dangerous for a person who’s seeking the rewards of entrepreneurship. If the decisions don’t feel risky and incomplete then the opportunity is too obvious and therefore too contested.

Directional thinking is suitable in the domain of uncertainty. It’s the thinking required to keep the many moving parts of a business moving roughly toward a desirable outcome – more often than not.

Related: 7 Keys to Making the Right Decision the First Time and Every Time

Directional thinking doesn’t resolve any tension. It doesn’t feel safe or complete. Therefore it requires emotional intelligence.

In a fast-changing world, anyone who thinks they have clear cut answers about the future is shutting down their ability to see what’s actually happening and respond accordingly. Likewise, anyone who hesitates while they look for a well-defined path will get left behind.

In a dark room, we want to know how to flick the lights back on but when it comes to the world of entrepreneurship there is no light switch, you have to get used to feeling around in the dark for years at a time while you are installing the lighting.

As entrepreneurs (especially now) we must stop looking for clear answers. Stop the quest for a beginning or an end. Let go of clear boundaries. Make your guidelines broad at best. There are no right answers – only directionally correct answers.

Related: 3 Big Questions to Sharpen Your Decision-Making Skills

Some decisions you make will be wrong. You will have to back out of a course of action that seemed wise a month ago. You might have to pay the price for ordering too much or too little from a supplier. You may have to have some tough conversations with people about why you’re zigging now when only yesterday you were extolling the benefits of zagging. All of this is better than the alternative of being paralyzed by fear or attempting to get things “back the way they were.

The only way forward in this transformational time is to make decisions that are mostly right, sort-of right, on-balance right based on all the incomplete information we have access to.

Be ok with grey. Be ok with being slightly off the mark, or not even knowing exactly where the target is. The best decisions right now are directionally correct.

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