In Praise of Decisiveness: Change Leadership Techniques to Conquer Indecision

If you struggle with making decisions in your business leadership role, you might find some comfort in the fact that the CEO Genome Study Project found it is typically the highest-IQ CEOs who struggle most with indecision. Still, while some leaders may relish lingering over a certain amount of intellectual complexity, it will ultimately impede their decisiveness — and the organization’s effectiveness.

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” (Teddy Roosevelt)

With the vast amounts of data and metrics available to business leaders today, a leader prone to analysis rather than action (“analysis paralysis”) can find endless ways to put off making a tough call. Before any organizational realignment can be successful, leaders must be ready to take the necessary decisive actions.

Learning from Great Leaders

I am a huge fan of the decisiveness shown by some of history’s best military leaders:

Winston Churchill attacked Great Britain’s slow-moving war bureaucracy by printing “ACTION THIS DAY” labels, which he personally pasted to many documents he dispatched.

General Colin Powell was said to have a rule governing the best time to make a decision, known as the 40/70 rule. According to this rule, if you make the decision before you have 40 percent of the available information, you are probably moving too quickly; if you wait for more than 70 percent, you are probably being too indecisive. 

Napoleon was famous for his laser-focused planning, but Wellington beat him at Waterloo with agility — Wellington made complex strategic decisions as he moved constantly among the troops, repositioning whole armies on the fly. Much of the military history of the 19th and 20th centuries has included efforts by military leaders to replicate this sort of fast and decisive result.

Decisiveness: Key to Business Success

In the business world, the dramatic effects of making poor decisions — or not making decisions at all — is exemplified by Kodak, the once-leading manufacturer of photographic film. As early as 1981, Kodak was aware that digital photography would likely usurp film photography; however, they remained indecisive about taking action. By 2002, when sales of digital cameras surpassed those of film, Kodak had been left behind.

Sometimes business leaders hesitate to act with decisiveness because they think too narrowly, are biased by personal values and short-term emotions, or are looking back and reconsidering previous decisions and their results.  Another problem I see all the time is what we call “operational myopia.” This occurs when leaders miss out on choosing from the realm of possibilities because they try to solve the problem too quickly with operational changes, discarding new ideas or concepts without any serious consideration. 

While organization leaders tend to see themselves as forward thinkers, the reality is more static. Too often change is perceived as threatening or an aspersion that the current system is wrong. Our message is that realignment and organizational change is an opportunity for positive transformation and growth, both personally as an individual and collectively as a company. When a business sets out to redesign its organization, leaders need to advocate and champion the transformation by actively facilitating the change and offering support to the team. We call leaders that perform these tasks or proactively champion change Alignment Leaders®.

An Alignment Leader® not only needs to be decisive in their role and commitment to the process, but also to be on the lookout for dissension and indecision. Implementing a new organization design can be difficult for employees and leaders alike, and dissension and reticence regularly occur. However, if your team is having a hard time making even minor decisions, you should find the rationale behind the indecision and call out the true nature of the concerns.

Four Questions to Aid Decision Making

Brothers Chip and Dan Heath provide great insight regarding decisiveness in their aptly named book, Decisive. They propose four questions to be considered by a change leader struggling with a decision.  I also can’t resist throwing in a little strategy from the military:

  1. What alternative choices do I have and how can I find them? Many business leaders today are facing some of their toughest challenges ever. Sometimes it can be desirable to find a few good options and multi-track them simultaneously to find the best solution. For example, when Steve Jobs wanted to create a unique look for Apple products, he didn’t decide immediately on one “design language,” or overarching style. Instead, he ran a contest in which world-class designers developed their own concepts. The winner, Hartmut Esslinger, created the signature curved, white or beige cases with thin lines that would define Apple’s early products. 
  2. How can I avoid making a decision simply based on my personal preferences? The U.S. Army’s strategy emphasizes the importance of knowing the objective. Every operation should be directed toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective. A leader who wants to build an organization capable of delivering differentiated products and winning strategies can similarly make the right decisions by focusing on the business objective.
  3. How can I stop my temporary emotions from standing in the way of a wise decision? Business leaders do not always realize they are being influenced by an incidental emotional state, such as anger, fear, frustration, or disappointment. Decisions based on fleeting emotions are not always good ones, yet such decisions may have lasting impacts. One of the best ways to keep emotions from obscuring sound judgment is to create a clear, objective set of rules to guide business decisions.
  4. How can I be ready for the good and bad results stemming from my choices? One of the first lessons taught in the military can be useful: Don’t dwell on your losses. In 1812, after Napoleon invaded Russia, Mikhail Kutuzov, a Russian field marshal, knew that strategically he had to abandon Moscow to regroup and fight Napoleon from a position of strength — which he did, successfully. The best thing to do may be simply to recognize what did not work out and make a change.

In addition to these points, you can ensure that your team doesn’t stall out in indecision and generate a sense of urgency by asking these questions: “What if we don’t take action?” and “How could our competitors take advantage of our inaction?”

Finally, if your organization evidences a culture of indecision, consider that this may have initiated with company leadership. Creating a culture of decisiveness requires a leader who supports intellectual honesty and encourages trust in the connections between people. By utilizing each encounter with your employees as an opportunity to model open, honest, and decisive dialogue, you are setting the tone for the entire organization.