All too often, I watch business owners freeze in the process of decision making. They might be considering a big, strategic change, or shifting a few team members into new slots. Often, however, they delay making the call. It's as if they are waiting for the perfect answer. They're hoping for an epiphany or, better yet, a genie in a bottle to make all their business problems go away.
Well, 25 years into my entrepreneurial journey, there've been no epiphanies for me, and certainly no genies.
Sooner or later, we are all faced with gut-wrenching decisions that can affect the future of our business and, as business owners, the well-being of our families. But no matter how challenging or unnerving they may be, we still need to make decisions and act on them, or our businesses could come to a grinding halt.
How can you break out of decision-making paralysis? I distill the decision down to its simplest possible form, using a highly scientific process I call: "Is it yummy or is it yucky?"
Let me explain.
As a young entrepreneur, I once found myself stalled when I had to make a key decision on the direction of my business. At dinner one night I asked for the advice of a successful businessman. I was expecting a deep, analytical response – but what he said instead has stuck with me for decades. He picked up the sugar bowl in one hand and the salt shaker in the other. "I want you to make a gut decision," he said. "Is the opportunity yummy, or yucky?"
A simple, but profound question.
Why? This experienced, self-made business leader knew that I'd done a lot of legwork leading up to this point of (in)decision. He knew that I had thought about which customers my new direction would most likely engage, and how many clients it might alienate. He knew I had studied what the competition was doing, and that I knew where my market was headed. He knew I had run the numbers backward and forward to see where a "wrong" decision might leave the company, and my family.
In short, he knew that I was fully capable of making an informed choice – or, as I now think of it, an "informed gut decision." For me, this is when you meld your thoughtful analysis with the broad gut understanding of your business that you have developed systematically over time.
One of my clients, Greg van den Hoogen, CEO of Pharmasave Drugs (Atlantic) Ltd., likes to call this the "art and science of decision making that comes from truly knowing your business – the facts and figures, as well as the bumps and bruises that come from having worked in it for a long time."
Ironically, decision making should be quite simple. I mean, there are only two real decisions that you can make: Yes or No. This isn't just cheery Mary Poppins optimism. As Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric, once said, "Simplicity is an indispensable element of a leader's most important function."
Yes, you have to do your homework and know your business. But that doesn't mean you need to overcomplicate your decisions. Once you have the information you need to solve a problem, take a breath. Often, a problem appears daunting just because we're too close to it; all we can see is the complexity. Step back and trust yourself to make a right decision, grounded in evidence, experience and thoughtfulness.
Of course, there are no guarantees. You learn to choose the sugar over the salt based on the indispensable, acquired knowledge inherent in your management style and experience.
When I learned to trust my informed instincts, the "yummy" decision quickly became obvious. No one expects you to get it right every time. But as you learn to trust your gut, you'll find it gets easier and easier to make the best decisions for your business.
Please pass the sugar.
Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. He holds the Institute of Corporate Directors certification (ICD.D). Follow him on Twitter at @90per centRule.