Self deception of the Startup Founder: Paralysed decisions

This week I’m paralysed on some of my simplest decisions while happily making complex decisions quickly, and being incisive and highly effective on others. This problem occasionally crops up in my work and personal life, and it frustrates the hell out of me; I’m going to write about it here, see if it helps me find a new way forwards. Hopefully this may also help others who’ve experienced a similar problem in their own lives.

A minor epiphany

I’ve always known it felt like Writer’s Block, and blamed myself for the inactivity. Other people – from my teachers and parents onwards – accused me of rampant laziness, when the opposite was usually true: I was slogging away, exhausting myself, and nothing was happening.

This week, in the middle of broad range of these all at once, I noticed a pattern: the things that block me are decisions where I have literally no idea what the comparative impact is of the different alternatives. I have many ideas for what might happen each way – but no experience or information to tell me how (un)likely each one is, nor how severe (or insignificant).

Life experience has taught me over and over again that I have a high rate of making the “wrong” decision in such cases, and causing myself great loss. My perception of the cost of being wrong seems to increase each time I have to make these kinds of decisions; it only fades when I have a long string of “normal” decisions where I have even a small amount of information to go on.

Coping mechanisms

One of my learned behaviours in these situations is to look for some other high-value task to work on instead. It’s a kind of running-away, but one that produces strong results (albeit in a different area), and so the net outcome is usually positive.

Tasks I tend to jump on are:

  1. New game-designs
  2. New technologies that don’t exist but ought to
  3. New tools that would speed up my workflow
  4. New tools that transform our work: they make the impossible become possible
  5. New products
  6. Experiments on things I’ve previously run-into and concluded: “I really don’t understand this”

Now I’ve put that down on (metaphorical) paper, something screams at me that’s missing from that list:

There’s many good things on the list, but nothing that actively increases my knowledge of the different alternatives I’m being asked to decide upon in the first place

Arguably: I’m doing the exact opposite of Eric Ries’s practical interpretation of Lean Startups: Always be testing/gaining knowledge of the thing that you understand least or fear most.

By definition, in a startup (where you never know more than 1% of what normal businesses know about their environment) … that is always your highest reward / lowest cost option; that knowledge is worth more than anything else you could be doing right now.

Self deception of the Startup Founder

Is this a problem? Often: no.

Especially in a startup, where there’s always 10x as many “urgent” things to do as there is time/manpower to do them … the chances are that whatever random distraction you pick to work on will be just as valuable to the business as the thing you got blocked on.

But this is a deception: it’s only through random luck that the net outcomes are positive. The better you understand your business, the more likely you’re already working on the most important items. In which case, the things you choose to work on instead of being blocked … are lower value than the ones you’re avoiding.

Therefore, I believe this is a bad habit I need to eradicate. I’m sufficiently good at sufficiently many things that I’ve historically been able to make up for the damage this causes. If I could get rid of it, I would achieve much closer to my true potential. That’s a big win.

Cures for analysis paralysis

From Wikipedia’s article on Analysis Paralysis:

a choice is never made, rather than try something and change if a major problem arises

…and this is probably why I’ve always found zero value in the concept. Every one of my paralysed decisions are ones where there is no possibility of changing if any problem arises.

They are always decisions of finality.

Often, it’s because other people / other organizations are so incapable of changing once a decision has been made. Looking back, I’m very good at blasting through this kind of paralysis wherever I have a powerful position over the other actors I’m working with.

For instance, where the decision will affect a small sub-contractor who’s beholden to the large organization where I’m working … and I know that if I twist their arm, they’ll renege on any strategy we caused them to start upon. I know that if things go wrong, whether or not they want to change, I can make them do so (for their own good, and ours).

Digging deeper into Analysis Paralysis

AP situations are characterized by large amounts of research, planning, etc. 10 years ago, I used to do that; it was mostly because I was taught to do so, by Employers, Teachers, and Society. It was a bad lesson that is still widely taught today.

I escaped that trap many years ago. In my early 20’s I discovered that much of the received wisdom in how to run companies and products was – frankly – complete bullshit. Mostly it was wild extrapolation by people who’d benefited from others’ innovation, but never had to take the risks or do the work themelves. After that, Scrum was a huge help to me: it said “look, you were right: there are completely different ways of working and structuring work with other people. Here’s one of them – and it looks like nothing you’ve been taught, but a lot like the things you’ve been discovering by accident actually work“.

So … screw Analysis Paralysis. And scorn any individual who levels that accusation at you. They mean well, but they are peddling a neat-sounding phrase they don’t understand, applied to a situation they don’t know.

Seeking other ways forwards

Thinking back to my introduction to Scrum 10 years ago, I see a lot that might be applicable here. Nothing about Scrum itself, but instead the abstraction “discover new process that re-inforces and celebrates things that I know work, but was taught to avoid; proceed to embrace those things”.

Uninformed high-stake decisions are scary. I’m highly educated with an extremely creative background coupled with an extremely strong grasp of Mathematics and logic. Given any situation, even convoluted and intricate ones, I can rapidly and relatively easily extrapolate forwards and predict multiple outcomes, all in m head, with a high degree of accuracy.

TL;DR: I have a high success rate of predicting the unpredictable. As a result, when I have to make a difficult decision, I very nearly always pick a “winning” route. I estimate I pick a better than average (“good or great”) route approximately 90% of the time.

I also have an insanely high rate of predicting low-probability events. If something is only 1% likely to happen, and I declare it’ll happen, I’m right perhaps 50% of the time or more. If I’m unsure, and say I think it’s a high possibility, I’m right about 20% of the time. This is not luck: it’s intuition and prediction.

Let’s compare them:

Paralysed decision: Random unpredictable (50/50) outcome, no possibility of adapting after the decision

vs.

Standard “Difficult” decision: Highly predictable (90/10) outcome, and/or many opportunities to adapt to poor/unlucky decision

Oh. Right. Now I see why I get stuck. Why I’m paralysed. It’s nothing to do with over-analysing (as others sometimes believe). It’s simple risk/reward. I’m like a 20/20 vision knife-thrower being asked to work blindfold in the dark with unfamiliar knives in a venue I’ve never been before. Ouch.

Conclusions and practical steps

Writing this has given me two concrete ideas. One is intuitive, the other is a self-suggestion from noticing that I was doing the opposite of chanelling Eric Ries.

1. Blast it with repetition

Shy geeks who struggle with dating are given a recurring piece of advice when too scared to approach potential dates: Do it 100x times more often than you are right now. Fail over and over and over again.

Fail until failure itself becomes meaningless. Until you start to seek out failure instinctively, and have to stop yourself, because it’s become so natural to you to “fail” – you’ve rewired your previous instinct that you ought to avoid failure.

In practice: Pro-actively seek out these kinds of decisions. There are probably lots of them lurking in my week-to-week work and life, but not important enough to bubble to the surface. Normally I’m happy with that – they’re like sharks, and I’m subconsciously ignoring them hoping that by the time I am forced to confront them, the situation has changed and they’ve become cuddly dolphins instead. But I could seek them out aggressively, throw myself at them. Better to do that when they AREN’T (yet) critical!

2. Channel Eric Ries: kill it with data

Paralysed by a decision whose outcomes you don’t understand, or can’t evaluate? The answer is simple: think of an action you can take that would give you some extra information about one (or more) of the outcomes – any information, no matter how small, for any outcomes, no matter how few.

In practice: With people, be bold in asking them what outcomes they see, and how they would be affected. In my experience, this will only work if done promptly and very briefly.

In practice: With commitments, invent a smaller version of the commitment and try that. Try multiple smaller versions, and commit in different decisions – evaluate what happens and then return to the Big One.

In practice: With organizational strategies, outsource resources to attempt one or more strategies at once on a small scale, as “tests”. Monitor what happens, do NOT use the outcomes to predict what to do (your team is not the same as the outsourced team). But use your observations of what happened to the outsourced teams to predict and evaluate what might happen to your team. Critically: this requires you have a deep exposure to the day to day challenges and outcomes faced by the outsourcer; having them go silent and deliver a Fait Accomplit is entirely useless to you here.

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