[This post is an excerpt from Expensive Sentences, to be published in January 2017 by Ideapress.]
My mother would often remind me that “not to decide is to decide.” That’s an insightful truth about many of life’s activities. If we postpone a decision about joining a group, taking a class, or starting a hobby, those opportunities are often overcome by events. Then, as John Lennon observed, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
But sometimes too much of life becomes making plans when a poorly contained decision-making process oozes into days and weeks. In those cases, the cost of indecision extends beyond the missed opportunity. The shot-we-don’t-take or decision-we-don’t-make lingers unresolved, sucking up more time and mental energy every time we revisit it.
My wife picked out our wedding cake in fifteen minutes. We happened upon a nice-looking bakery between appointments, strolled in, and got it done. There were no subsequent discussions about “gosh, maybe we should get the strawberry filling” or “is four tiers too much?” It was a short engagement, so we had to plan fast, and we needed to tend to other details. (For the record, no one complained about the cake, and I can’t actually remember how many tiers it had.)
I hesitate to criticize those who spend eighteen months planning a wedding; it is, after all, a unique event. But the marriage celebration is a familiar example of how planning and decision time will expand like an accordion to fill the schedule we permit.
How long does it take to plan a wedding? The true answer is: it takes from now until the day before the wedding. Choosing invitations can take ten minutes or six months. How much time have you got? (The parallel question of “How much does a wedding cost?” has the same answer.)
This dynamic is not limited to weddings. How long does it take to choose a marketing vendor? To decide on a company mission statement? To set the lunch menu for a board meeting? To pick out the right outfit? To write an email message?
I don’t suggest that those tasks are of equal importance; clearly they are not. But any of them could vary one-hundredfold in the time and energy they consume. Claiming “we’re too busy to decide now” may not advance the issue or improve the quality of the decision, but it will certainly add time and cost to the process. If you come back to that decision again and again, revisiting it will carry a substantial cost.
Hamlet could have been a short play. After all, if he had believed the ghost and simply avenged Dad in Act One, well…. Thankfully, Shakespeare had a different plan—a decisive Dane would have robbed the world of great drama.
But do you want drama in your team decision-making? When a decision is postponed for busyness or any other reason, the door is opened for anyone on the team to come back to it—at virtually any time—and re-open that discussion.
Indecision, excessive debate, waffling, and vacillating are toxic to productivity. To avoid that poison, always elect one of two paths when faced with a team decision:
- Decide. Make the call of Yea or Nay, Go or No-go.
- Decide to decide later. Make a specific appointment in the future—choose a date and time—to revisit the decision.
Postponement can be the right path; your team may be better equipped to decide with the benefit of future information. But would you ever say, “Instead of deciding this now, let’s spend twenty minutes a day thinking and talking about it for the next three months. How does that sound?” While that course would never be intentional, the issue could play out that way if you don’t either reach a conclusion now or decide to resume discussion at a specific later date—and not before.