I first came upon this topic in 2012. At the time, I was wrestling with how explain to someone that delay in decision-making, while an essential part of good leadership, can also be perceived as indecision, procrastination, or disinterest, and – worse – lead to a passive decision to do nothing (essentially, putting off a decision till later is deciding not to act now). But what is the right amount of time to consider and mull? Act too soon, and you can make a serious error. Wait too long, and you can miss an opportunity or make a situation worse through inaction.
To me decision-making is akin to taking a photograph of a sunrise or sunset. Nowadays, you can take several dozen digital photos, then look at them later on your computer and pick just the right one. But what if you could only take one? How would you determine exactly the right moment to click the shutter? Too soon, and the light is still too bright, the colours not that interesting. Too late and the light is dim, the colours dull. There are many analogies – hunting, birding, surfing, cooking, writing, speaking: how do you know exactly the right moment to take the shot, or jump, or speak? How long do you wait?
Harvard Business Review has this uncanny ability to drop an answer or a hint at just the right time. More prescient than a fortune cookie, the Management Tip of the Day often brings good information just in time for whatever’s going on. And 13 July 2012 was a great example. This article seemed about right for my current problem.
It led me, as I’m sure was intended, to purchase the book. However, I’m sure it was also intended that I read it sooner than 4 years later. Regardless, I did get to read it and I’m glad that I finally did.
Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, by Frank Partnoy looks at active procrastination as a part of decision making. The style of the book is similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, both in the language and the presentation – providing scenarios and stories to exemplify definitions (regardless, Partnoy could not make the concept of “discount rates” any less dense, so this part was a bit of slog but an important component of the science of delay).
Procrastination has two forms. The first is what I’ll call Passive Procrastination. This is the kind we most often think of as procrastination: unconsciously letting delay happen, or being easily distracted from something large, difficult or important, primarily to avoid doing it. In this form, we allow our bias towards the present (what’s easiest right now?) to override what we might need to consider for the future. This is where the whole “discount rate” thing becomes important, and he does a much better job in the book explaining it than I ever could, so I refer you to that for more details. The other form of procrastination is Active – consciously managing the delay up to the point of decision making or taking action, in order to best manage risk and use resources effectively.
The yang to procrastination’s yin is something called pre-properation. If procrastination is waiting when you should act, pre-properation is acting when we should wait. This is rooted in impatience – the need to have or see any result (not necessarily the right or best one).
It was this tension between procrastination and impatience that I was most interested in learning more about. I always thought there was an art to determining when to act – a balance between quick decision making and careful decision making, waiting until just the right moment so that risks are low, opportunities are high, and resources are optimal. Decide too quickly and you might be acting rashly, moving forward with insufficient information or wasting resources. Wait too long and you’re essentially deciding not to act (a concept I have a hard time convincing others of – by “not deciding right now”, you are deciding to do nothing).
The book doesn’t answer the question of how-long-is-too-long. But it does reinforce some good habits of leaders in decision making:
- Consciousness, or in today’s parlance, mindfulness. This means maintaining awareness of where you are in the decision making process, and acknowledging if you are active or passive. Either is okay, as long as you know where you are and why.
- Structure. The use of checklists or to-do lists can contribute to managing or enforcing delays in decision making. They also provide a mechanism of conscious or active work in decision making, mitigating the potential of drifting into passiveness or avoidance.
- Collaboration. Involving and consulting others along the way helps to prevent confirmation bias by bringing in alternative views during decision making. Good leaders are not distracted by alternative views, but incorporate them into their decision.
I’ve been told that I’m a quick decision maker (fortunately for me, often enough, I’m also a good decision maker). People have asked me, ”How do you do that? Make decisions like that so quickly?” I do try to incorporate the three items above, but I think I also have the benefit of experience – I’ve been doing this a long time, not just working but making decisions at work. There is also a certain element of bravery associated with good decision making, as you have to be willing to stand by your decisions, or at least explain them. One of the key ways I support and empower those that I work is just that: regardless of the outcome of your decisions, if you can explain to me how and why you made them, and that makes sense, I will always back you up and support you.
This book provided much food for thought, and it was helpful to read that decision making is both art and science, and that there is no magic formula, only a balance. Also, that procrastination is not necessarily bad: as long as it has a purpose (and you get other things done in the meantime), it is not “doing nothing” but rather a conscious delay towards making a good decision.