Time-to-decision bias in companies
How companies fall into the time-to-decision bias and end up spending the same amount of time on important decisions as they do on trivial decisions
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You may have heard this story about Mark “Meta” Zuckerberg’s (lovingly referred to from here on out as Meta-Berg). The story goes that Meta-Berg wears the same type of T-shirt everyday. No, not the exact same shirt but the same shirt. He says he does this so that he has one less decision to make. For us human beings this is known as decision fatigue and human beings reach decision-making fatigue after a certain number of decisions. By eliminating one simple decision Meta-Berg has made his own life easier and he can focus on as he said “just building the best products and services and helping us reach our goal and achieve this mission of helping to connect everyone in the world and giving them the ability to stay connected with the people that they love and care about”
I can deeply resonate with this sentiment as someone who has to constantly make decisions at work and in life. One less decision, one less worry.
While decision fatigue is a real thing I also think decision making within companies is completely broken and causes us as humans to reach decision fatigue faster than we need to. I came across the below quote from Ward Cunningham:
Cunningham says “I can’t tell you how much time is spent worrying about decisions that don’t matter. To just be able to make a decision and see what happens is tremendously empowering, but that means you have to set up the situation such that when something does go wrong, you can fix it. When something does go wrong, it doesn’t cost you or your customer an exorbitant amount. It isn’t ridiculously expensive. When you get in situations where you cannot afford to make a mistake, it’s very hard to do the right thing. So if you’re trying to do the right thing, the right thing might be to eliminate the cost of making a mistake rather than try to guess what’s right.”
I can deeply resonate with this sentiment as well as someone who has had several first-hand experiences with decisions being made extremely slowly when the right decision would be to just try something out.
Both eliminating a decision that needs to be made (either by changing the process or delegating) or focusing effort on only key decisions as this article talks about should help right?
If you look at the above 2x2 matrix, it's simple. Spend more time on decisions that are irreversible and consequential. The framework talks about delegating reversible and inconsequential decisions but that doesn’t happen all the time either. What's worse instead of delegating, the same amount of time is spent on making a reversible/inconsequential decision as is done on a irreversible/consequential decision
Deciding if we should build a product that takes six months of effort should be a slow and final decision. This would squarely fit into the top-left quadrant. On the flip side, deciding whether to purchase a Calendly subscription for 50 people at the cost of $20 a month is both reversible and inconsequential. Not a decision that a company should lose sweat on.
I call this the time-to-decision bias. Why do companies and (by extension) humans fall into this bias? The below are some thoughts on why I think this happens:
Bikeshedding, leading to Procrastination
Bikeshedding, also known as the law of triviality, states that companies spend a majority of time on minor decisions and neglect to spend time on more complex decisions. Northcote Parkinson gives us the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bicycle shed while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.
I’ve been in product discussions where Product Managers (rightfully?) spend hours on non-trivial decisions such as copy that can be easily tested v/s which feature to build because they procrastinate on the harder decision. The time they spend on both decisions is the same but the impact is very different.
Indecisive Decision Makers
Being indecisive sounds like it should have the opposite impact where no decisions get made. However, if you are indecisive and want to appear like you can take a stand you’ll make a noise about a non-consequential issue (No, why spend $10k more for this hire, we can buy the entire office supply of unhealthy candy for a year). You’ll be seen as decisive? And smart maybe? I mean god knows. Who doesn’t like candy right?
Incompetent Decision Makers
Similar to indecisiveness an incompetent decision maker will quickly make a suboptimal decision without the right data .. or even the right questions to ask to make the decision giving it the same weightage as a smaller decision.
Committee Based Decision Making
If a decision is made by a committee of people then does it have an owner? Who is finally responsible for that decision? Who is accountable for that decision? If the outcome doesn’t personally impact one specific person then why spend time on it? When there is an identifiable neck-on-the-line decisions tend to be better.
Lack of delegation
There are managers that either do not trust their employees to do the job well or need to have a say in every minor decision resulting in decision fatigue. This leaves them with both less time and capacity to make decisions that are more important. In other words by spending more time on inconsequential and reversible decisions they end up giving equal (or less!) weightage to consequential and irreversible decisions
Usually when a topic is up for discussion even if there is a strict timeline to discuss the topic (5 mins for topic X and 15 mins for topic Y) most of the time people don’t stick to this and end up spending more time on topix X than allotted. Even if they do keep the allotted time people fall into the time-to-decision bias. I’ve been in discussions where a $1M+ product spend was given the same weightage on the agenda as opposed to a decision to offer a candidate an additional $10k/year in salary. Had that discussion went on for 5 minutes more I would have offered to pay that $10k myself. I kid you not. Your argument might be that a lot of work has been put into the $1M+ product spend decision and in some cases that might be true, but not always.
The next time you’re in a meeting or making a decision ask yourself if you are falling into the time-to-decision bias.
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