Dave Williams headshot

When the wrong decision is better than no decision

How many times have you found yourself in a meeting where you just want to move on, but the conversation seems to be highjacked by a couple of people who need to know everything, and everything about it, before they will commit to a decision?

David Williams, Impact’s founder and CEO, questions whether there are times when we should sacrifice a preference to search for an ideal, fully-informed solution, in favour of doing what we need to do now whilst we still have time to do it.

"Procrastination is the thief of time"

Leading in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) requires, amongst many other things, flexibility of thought and action.

Making a “perfect” decision usually means gathering all of the related criteria together, weighing up the pros and cons and then making the "right" call. But how do you make a decision when the criteria you want is shifting or not apparent at all, when time is short and when there is more than one direction open to you?

In the VUCA world we are living in, aiming to make a perfect decision can mean taking more time than is available. If the decision making process is protracted then by the time it is made, the opportunity could have been lost. Someone else could have taken the initiative away from you, and some of the options that were open to you may have now disappeared.

When I was newly qualified as a teacher in the outdoors in 1977, one of my jobs was to assess Duke of Edinburgh Award students. I remember a group coming to us who were embarking on their Gold Award expedition, which in this case involved an unaccompanied ascent of Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain. They had planned a circuitous route that started and finished in the Langdale valley, where they would camp over night and then carry on with the expedition across other mountains in the area. They had the right equipment, were fit and reasonably well experienced for their ages and they were full of enthusiasm.

I had dropped them off in the valley, very early in the morning. It was a lovely day and the forecast was fine. A couple of hours after they had set off though, the weather closed in and the mist came down. It soon deteriorated into a really bad day. It was sleeting, hail was falling in the valley and visibility was really poor, so it was obviously much worse up in the fells. I drove back to the pick up point to wait for them but there was no sign. In those days, before mobile phones, it could be a long uncomfortable wait for news of a group and I was starting to get worried. I called some of my colleagues from the phone box at the camp site the group were due to stay in and we prepared ourselves to go out and search for them. Then the phone in the phone box rang and it was a very happy and relieved group, calling from the Wasdale Head Inn in a valley on the other side of Scafell.

Halfway through the walk, due to the low mist, they had found navigation increasingly difficult. They spent far too long trying to decide which way to go and some of the team were getting really cold and they needed to get down quickly. So, rather than prevaricate for longer about which was the right way to go, they decided to follow an obvious footpath, off into the mist, guessing that it would probably take them down.

It takes two hours to drive from Langdale to Wasdale in a minibus. I wasn't happy! But had they spent much longer in the mountains, trying to agree on the right way down, they could well have started with hypothermia and a much worse situation could have ensued. They took the wrong route down, necessitating a long detour by minibus, but procrastinating about which direction to take, when they were unsure of their bearings, would almost certainly have left them in a seriously dangerous situation. In this case, making the wrong decision was much better than no decision.

I believe that one of the requirements for running a business is about being able to create momentum and pace. Sometimes we need to sacrifice a preference to search for the perfect solution or the informed decision, in favour of doing what we need to do now whilst we still have time to do it. It's not a strategy that suits every situation, but within reason, it’s better to make a mistake, learn from it and move on fast, than it is to avoid making a decision because there is too much ambiguity or too many options.

Have you got an example of "When the wrong decision was better than no decision?"

* Edward Young in his poem "Night Thoughts"

David Williams is Founder and CEO of Impact.