Welcome to my first post in a long time. What changed?
I recently started my own company and the single most important thing to get right is fast, good quality decision making. The quality comes from analytical thinking and a quest for evidence, but the speed comes from having a shared framework that makes conversations more efficient. So I wrote this for us as a team:
First, let's establish the case for not thinking. Using cognitive shortcuts (assumptions, patterns, heuristics) is an extraordinary evolutionary advantage - it is metabolically very cheap (compared with reasoning over the complete field) and allows you to focus your very finite attention on the one or two variables you're able to actively manage in flow. This kept us alive for hundreds of thousands of years when training a neural pathway to associate movement in tall grass with an imminent predator threat was a fundamental survival advantage. We seldom face such primitive and fatal threats any more, but our brains still parse the world in exactly the same way - we look for ways to reduce the complexity around us and respond from pre-established instincts, not analytical evaluation.
Thus an evolutionary advantage can become a hindrance in the modern world, although it is still very applicable in most ordinary, day-to-day situations. Most of your interactions with other people are straightforward and monotonous, and not thinking through every aspect of those from first principles is tremendously useful.
The downside comes whenever you're doing something new, which you almost always are in a startup. Whether it is taking on tasks that are new to you as an individual, or it is your disruptive company doing something that has never been done before, you haven't developed any useful pathways for these things. But that is not what your sneaky brain will want you to believe! Because of the low cost and high success of this cognitive mode, you're brain has gotten pretty good about misleading your perception of what you've really though through and what you haven't.
So what can we conclude so far?
(1) Heuristics are super useful evolutionary advantages for dealing with most situations in daily life.
(2) They are so useful - and so cheap - that your brain will try and avoid any analytical thinking it can, even fooling you into thinking you know things you don't.
(3) The impact of this is amplified when you're doing something new, for example a startup.
Therefore, it is vital to build some introspective awareness of this, and be very deliberate about how decisions are made when you're building a new company by exercising [at least some] new skills against a new idea. The degree of novelty you face will be high, the frequency and importance of decision making will be high, and that's going to be demanding. You need to be deliberate about this and you need good tools for thinking.
Let's talk about protocols to make this more effective, if not necessarily easier:
When approaching an ambiguous decision - which we define as a need for direction or choice before progress can be made in an area that the participants lack significant prior experience dealing with - the place I like to start is establishing some criteria for the outcome. Making decisions is about selecting a path which is preferred over all available alternative paths, so ask preferred how? For example you might say that you prefer options that achieve a quicker time to market, or a lower cost, or require fewer external dependencies, or can be reused in other situations you're confident you will need to address in the near future, etc. Be specific and measurable, and avoid tautologies like 'best choice for us' etc, you are defining precisely why an option would be the best choice. These give you dimensions against which to evaluate options, and that's where good research comes in.
But - before we start on that - it is worth touching on weighting. Important decisions seldom come down to a single dimension (although it can be a real advantage if you can make that happen) and, whenever you are dealing with n criteria with n options, you will almost always find that each options outperforms the others along different dimensions. That is to say you more often end up with a collection of options that are all 8/10 instead of one 10/10 and a bunch of 3/10s. Giving each dimension a unique weighting is the most effective way to bring clarity - you declare what you value most, and the best path to that presents itself and makes its associated tradeoffs clear (ie the things it did not score highly on).
Next you need to take another step back, and question whether or not you're even aware of all the possible paths! I have seen a lot of regret from teams that rush to make a call on something, select from what they know, and then become aware of much better options they had available to them only once it's too late and they're committed. When enumerating the options keep in mind that you're dealing with a situation your group has little expertise in, so it is unlikely you'll be able to just get in a room and come up with all the relevant options as a team.
If the novelty is driven by your new, different idea, then there is unlikely to be a lot of prior art to uncover (i.e. you cant just learn off others). So you will need to engage in some generative exercises to create options. If you're familiar with product design, the product discovery process has a whole set of activities you can select from that will focus your creative energy in a practical way. Literature I would recommend here are things like Sprint and anything in general on discovery methodologies.
If the novelty is driven by you and your team members taking on new roles you're less familiar with, then congratulations, this is the easier problem to solve. All you need to do is find a few people (definitely more than one) who have faced the same situation you're currently in and absorb their experience.
When looking at prior art you will inevitably find a distribution of opinions on your current dilemma. If it were an easy issue then you wouldn't be struggling with it - regardless of novelty - and viewpoints on complex issues seldom converge. In fact, if you do find consistency in the opinions you're collecting, that is a red flag and I would suggest deliberately looking for outliers. Once you have a few different ideas to work with, you can further process that data by evaluating your sources. Look for things like quality (i.e. how qualified is the person and how do they index generally in this discipline), think about the context they were in when they made their similar decision that you're attempting to learn from (how similar was that to your situation), and what are their motivations or incentives attached to helping you (for example someone selling a solution which could apply to your current problem may not be as unbiased as you'd like).
The point is to differentiate the individuals you've sampled such that you can sort them into more credible/relevant and less credible/relevant. That will help you decide which advice to follow most closely. While you're at the stage of evaluating the quality and motivation behind the data points you've collected, I also think it is important to pause here and reflect on your own biases. It is human nature to love our own ideas, so anything you hear that confirms your own initial guess is likely to be taken more seriously than it otherwise might be on its own merits. Always tie things back to your early criteria for the decision - this technique can move the conversation from which idea you 'like the best' back to something more objective, and based on the measurable outcomes you've declared.
Most of these decisions are going to be team based - in a startup you're a small group and everyone is super engaged in everything. I recommend adopting some frameworks to help execute the decision and prevent it from becoming directionless or combative. Something like RACI can bring structure to the process by established clear roles relating to how input will be taken, how the decision will be made, and how it will be communicated. I have seen this radically accelerate how quickly and constructively a group reaches a conclusion.
My next protip would be to document everything. Keep some notes on criteria, options, key discussion points, and conclusion. Human memory isn't reliable in the way most of us think it is, and your ability to look back on today from some point in the future and review your performance will be extremely limited without a decent log. Closing the loop on what outcomes were realized vs what predicted is an essential habit to get into if you want your team and your company to grow and improve. Do not skip this, even when you're super busy.
A few final thoughts specifically for leaders:
There's contemporary - and dangerous - rhetoric in many corporations along the lines of 'everyone is entitled to their opinion/all opinions are valid' etc. The problem with this is it removes an individual's responsibility to put forward properly researched and rational arguments. If you can just trot out any old utterance and have it considered equally valid input with an evidence-based analysis someone else worked hard to put together, then there is no incentive to put in the hard thinking it takes to get to quality decision making. Everything degrades into a war of opinions and, in those situations, a hierarchy always wins and we're all generally aware that HIPPO has a weak correlation with good results. I recommend holding your team to a high standard of discourse, and being very clear that active participation is encouraged, but active participation comes with some expectations.
Speaking of active participation, you should always be looking for neurodiversity on important issues. That means deliberately looking for dissent, and it is especially important if everyone seems to be agreeing. In On Liberty, John Stewart Mill said:
"He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion... Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them...he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form."
I think that is a powerful way to highlight one of our cognitive weaknesses. Human reasoning is fundamentally flawed and limited, and it is only when we push against one another that we gain real quality in our thinking. Seeking out opposing views - again, well structured and properly argued - is essential to fully testing the dominant hypothesis before you start acting on it. I have changed my mind a lot - and been glad I did - using this behavior.
To close with I offer you a 'brain hack' of sorts; small adjustments in the language you use externally can change how you process information internally. When formulating hypothesis I suggest replacing "I think..." with "I would like to find out if..." because it divorces you from your own ideas (so you're less likely to display bias towards that option) and it places the emphasis on discovery, not declaration (you're setting up an investigation and you'll be led by the evidence, not stating a position).