When I was an up-and-coming ad. man I spend an enlightening few years in the employ of Michael Conroy, then MD at McCormick Intermarco-Farner and more recently President of Publicis-FCB in the UK. Michael is one of those truly charming, eloquent Irishmen to whom philosophising comes as naturally as breathing and one of his mantras has stuck with me to this day.
I have always been told that I was impatient and have tended to take this as an accusation. These days though, with the benefit of age and the overview that facilitates I see things differently. Maybe I have been blessed with the ability to see things without the clutter of unimportant details, but it often seems to me that people make decision-making unnecessarily complicated. Most of the really successful businessmen that I have met over the years have told me that a significant factor in their success has been the ability to make decisions and in today’s business world, if not in the past, this is definitely a pre-requisite to success. That’s probably why, apart from stuff that doesn’t deliver its promise, indecision and procrastination makes me madder than March hare! I really can’t bear to see a missed opportunity and in most cases behind every one of the there’s a ditherer. Business opportunities are so rare and valuable these days any that are missed because someone can’t piss or get off the pot represent a criminal waste! To me I see someone who can’t make a decision as somebody who lacks clarity of vision, and as a business developer clients who fall into this group only make my work harder.
I always loved Michael Conroy’s ability to illustrate a point with a story or anecdote and the one I recall about indecision was that half the decisions you make in your life have no consequence beyond the next minute of your life, half of those that remain have no consequence beyond the next hour, half of those that have not already been accounted for have a consequence of a day, and half of those that are left matter might impact on the next week. Half of those that remain might hold consequences for the next month and half of the rest might impact on the next year of your life, and so on. Ultimately you will see that of all the decisions you make in your life only a handful really matter in the great scheme of things. The thing is that when you have to make them you have no idea which decisions are the significant ones so you may as well just get on and make them and hope that if your decision is wrong it will only matter for a short while. Now, I think that’s a great piece of advice and one that, had I not already been well along this thought process might have changed my life. As it was, it merely gave me an anecdote to pull out of the bag from time to time to illustrate the point.
This approach definitely works. Sir Ralph Halpern resurrected the Burton Group of retail brands in the UK with an aggressive campaign of innovation. He once told me that he had no fewer than twenty pilot formats up and running at any one time and explained (Though it was probably obvious enough) that if only one in twenty succeeded, that one concept would pretty quickly more than cover the cost of the nineteen failures. So if anybody on his team came up with a concept that looked half-decent, they would give it a go!
Don’t get me wrong though. I am not advocating recklessness. While Michael Conroy gave me license to get on with it and think on my feet Stanley Kalms, the charman of the great Dixons Stores Group (now Dixons Stores International) added stability to my decision-making approach with his insistence on minimising risk. “I don’t mind taking risks” he once told me “As long as it doesn’t cost me anything” and with that he challenged me on one of my great ideas one day to “Show me how if this doesn’t work I don’t have to pay”. Which, incidentally, I did.
This isn’t a “get out of jail” card for the risk-averse it just points to something that separates the boys from the men. You still have to do your homework, but it can’t be allowed to slow you down so I have to admit, I’m not sure if it means that you have to weigh up all the odds very quickly or just know what to prioritise. Actually there is a bit of magic dust around some of the really great business people I have met that leads me to believe that its more about knowing instinctively what’s important, than exploring every avenue, and that demands a mindset that’s more genetic than acquired.
So, yes, its vital that you make business decisions quickly and I personally have far more time for someone who does than I do for procrastinators, but you have to make each decision on the basis of knowledge. You can acquire that at the time which means having resources and applying them efficiently and probably with a degree of prioritisation, which in turn means knowing, maybe instinctively, what’s important. It also points to accumulated knowledge, life experience and all that stuff as being an important aspect of sound decision-making.
So if your finger has been hovering over a button for the last six weeks, my advice is get on and push it. Minimise the risk by all means, you’d be stupid not to, but be decisive. The chances are that if you are wrong it won’t matter that much, but if you don’t push it, its an absolute cert than you won’t get that opportunity again!
May 20, 2008