How to make inexperienced and unconfident decisions

Decisions
Mark Lewis

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written on September 8, 2017

Treating a difficult decision as an “experiment” can help to take the pressure off.

The marketing manager gently closes the door behind him, explains it’s been a pleasure working with the team, but he’s been offered a position he can’t refuse and is moving on to new adventures. This position was critical for our company and we needed to find a replacement that could kick big goals. It was one of those decisions where I felt immense pressure to get it right first time.

After the news got around, one of our project managers put his hand up for the position, but he had no marketing qualifications and no marketing experience. However he was an amazing project manager, seriously productive and a huge contributor to the team. My big fear was if I let him take the marketing manager role and he was no good, then things could go pear shaped and we might also end up losing a great project manager. If I didn’t give him an opportunity I may risk losing him.

I’m fortunate that I have a great peer group that I regularly turn to for advice. However, many situations are unique and the peer group have not had relevant experience to be able to offer advice. This means the decision process still rests firmly on my shoulders.

The traditional approach to management decisions where you’re not sure, or inexperienced is to:

  • Act confident, be decisive and announce a decision; or
  • Delay the decision until you’re more confident of the outcome.

I feel uncomfortable acting confident because the underlying message is that “I know what I’m doing and I have certainty in the outcome”. But that’s not always the case. I also dislike the follow-on pressure that the decision ‘has to be right’. So option one was out for me.

When decisions are delayed in pursuit of more certainty, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to fall into a trap of analysis paralysis, lots of time can tick past while resources are consumed trying to predict an outcome. I didn’t think option two was going to be effective either – no matter how much time we applied to more research, we would never achieve a confident prediction.

Our answer was to collectively agree that none of us knew how this would unfold, we would give him a go as marketing manager, assess the situation after three months and label the whole thing as an ‘experiment’. If either party thought it hadn’t worked then we would go back to how we were with no hard feelings.

I’ve found this approach to be incredibly effective on many occasions when I’ve been faced with a decision where I’m unsure, or lack confidence in what the outcome might be. I’ve applied it to bonus schemes, staff positions, marketing campaigns etc. The key point in this approach requires a manager to throw away any ego or the need to appear ‘all-knowing and confident’ in every outcome. There is agreement that nobody knows how it will unfold.

The simple act of labeling a decision as an experiment carries a message that “this may or may not work, and that’s ok”. It must be communicated to the broader team so everyone is aware of the experiment. This creates a safe environment with an escape route for all parties to comfortably return to how things were, without a fear of failure. And most importantly it allows you to take risks that you wouldn’t take if you always have to be right.

And as for the project manager, well, it was one of the best experiments ever…. for us both. Christophe was an amazing marketing manager, he really did kick big goals and a couple of years later went on to work with Atlassian where he became head of product marketing.

Mark Lewis is the co-founder and CEO of Crewmojo.

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