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.

5 thoughts on “Self deception of the Startup Founder: Paralysed decisions

  1. Mike Leahy

    Not everyone is a “finisher” and the percentages of “finishers” to those that can be a first mover on a new idea is certainly biased towards the conception and initial effort to start a project. It’s fun and exhilarating to start something new, but some things take quite a bit of slogging through the details to actually finish. There are some things that fit the lean startup model well and it works well with the “consumer internet / mobile” type efforts especially if the only revenue is ads. Sadly this bias strongly influences the entire tech scene including investors or crowd funding initiatives for developer tools. Middleware or tech tools is one of those areas that doesn’t always fit the lean startup model well. For instance with your new Unity entity system effort you’re more likely to create a “MVD” – Minimum Viable Demo than an actual P – Product. I know I’ve been in the MVD stage for 10+ years with TyphonRT! There are many reasons for that, with bootstrapping / high cost of living re: SF, etc. and my extreme sense of perfection which I apply against my own work which certainly is a source of the ongoing saga; actually any work effort, but usually there is a deadline when doing 3rd party work. That is not bad though because developers expect nothing less than perfection with developer tools especially new methods / paradigms re: “entity systems”. The barrier for product / market fit is significantly more brutal for developer tools as compared to any internet or consumer startup as an inherent selling point of the product itself is perfection especially for trailblazing efforts.

    BTW I’m finally finishing and launching a 1st party product w/ TyphonRT! It’s a next-gen video engine for Android. http://www.typhonvideo.com for some promo and video links. I’ve put ~2500 hours into it on top of leveraging the 16k+ hours invested in TyphonRT itself which provides the enabling basis. I ran out of funds last year hardcore around June (4 months behind on rent! Scary seat of the pants times) and have been doing 3rd party contracting to now to build up a war chest. I’m super excited because I have about ~3 months of finishing work before launch and it should be out by the end of summer at this point especially since I don’t have to worry where rent is coming from for about a year at this point.

    I’d say keep at it. You don’t have to enjoy the slogging aspect of finishing, but consistently showing up will get you to the finish line and it takes a lot of willpower especially under financial constraints. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of your Unity entity system effort _when_ you take it head on and complete the beast. :D

  2. adam

    Personally, I make things primarily to see them used; it would drive me nuts to work so long on something that no-one else is benefitting from :).

    Looking forwards to seeing Typhon, finally. But … I am suspicious it could take another 20 years!

  3. Mike Leahy

    Yourself or others can’t or won’t want to use (much) what is not finished.. I finish plenty of stuff for others which keeps the lights on (barely sometimes). Though I suppose it comes down to the personality profile of the developer too; it takes all kinds to move things forward. I’ve enjoyed our banter over the years. I’m not patenting anything though I think I could have a good shot at a few things especially since they are given out like candy these days. It’s all relative though. Self-funding caused quite the delay… Then again what I created took time and it wasn’t until Android came out that there was the real impetus to finally make the real separating leap with the underlying architecture due to the wider ecosystem concerns (IE real fragmentation). I do look forward to building a team and cranking out product and TyphonRT itself as a middleware platform. Now back to work on that Unity Entity System! ;)

  4. adam

    Self-funding is certainly a massive time-sink, I often meet successful/influential people (non-founders: investors, finance people, corporate people, etc) who still have no idea how much it costs you time-wise to avoid external funding.

    I’m starting to use it as a litmus test. So many otherwise-knowledgeable people reveal their lack of direct, actual, in-the-trenches startup experience via this one issue.

  5. Mike Leahy

    Goodness I can only guess what life would be like if I got paid for all those hours. I estimate now I turned down ~1.5 to 2MM of income not following a standard professional path. The next thing that drives me a little nutty when talking to these types is the negative association of being a single founder. There is always one more thing a non-in-the-trenches person can throw out there to be dismissive even in face of something awesome. It sucks having a great demo and reasonably defensible tech and being told that is not enough…. you need a million users… and… Very few seemingly invest in innovation (or the types of things that require up front costs / time) these days. Those that do probably were in-the-trenches at one point or have an affinity for the tech at hand.

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