A lot of business-type folks, especially those in start-ups, talk a lot about making tough decisions. It’s typically framed as how hard it is to run a business or department and how lonely it is because you have to make all the tough decisions, but good decision makers are always meeting with people and searching out new information that will help them make those decisions.

That being said, the discussion about making tough decisions is, I believe, misguided because it focuses on the wrong type of difficult decisions. That is, it usually focuses on tough decisions where no right answer is obvious, but the decision can usually be made fairly quickly. In my experience, the really tough decisions are those that you know are right, but you also know there is a very negative consequence of that decision and thus you want to delay making it.

Tough Decisions

To me, a tough decision is one where there is no path that is clearly the best. There may be many reasons why the path may be unclear, including:

  • Imperfect information
  • Differing opinions
  • Not being able to see the future

Decisions makers have to be clear on what they want to do, and then enroll others in moving in that direction, even though they likely know that it’s an educated guess, at best. But regardless of how much you discuss and test different decisions, uncertainty is a fact of life.

These decisions are often about things like increasing recognition of good work, when it’s time to add a second location, and whether to promote from within or externally.

These are all really important decisions and have to be made. They are just not as hard, at least to me, as clearer decisions that have a better understood negative consequence.

Decisions With Tough Outcomes

These are decisions that change the direction of the company, result in the loss of jobs, and/or require significant capital investment. The outcome of these decisions ends in a tradeoff resulting from wanting things to be different than they are. This tradeoff is almost always negative – otherwise these decisions would be easy and only have positive outcomes!

Examples are shutting down a department that is clearly unprofitable, not promoting an employee, or renegotiating an agreement with a client.

In these cases the decision maker almost always knows the best path forward, they just don’t like what going in that direction will mean. They don’t want to have an ugly conversation with a person whose role is no longer needed. They don’t want to divert funds from the travel budget to this new project. They don’t want to have to beg for more time because it’s become clear that the goal isn’t achievable under the current strategy under the current timeline.

Moving Faster

Interestingly enough, I find that people are more apt to move quickly on tough decisions and slower on decisions with tough outcomes. That’s interesting because it shows me that people would rather make a decision with imperfect information quickly than make a decision that they know is best.

Of course it isn’t that simple. People often don’t want to make the decision because they have empathy and don’t want to create negative ripples in their company. It also may be the case that people are slower with decisions with tough outcomes because if there is clarity around what is best to, and that the outcome of doing it will result in some bad stuff happening, that it’s a larger project or strategic shift than a typical tough decision.

It is also important to have people on your team that have the capacity to make decisions based on unreliable and/or incomplete information and to be able to sift through that information in order to come up with reliable sources and decisions in a short time frame.

Regardless of the reasons why people often make tough decisions fast and act on decisions with tough outcomes slow, this outcome should be reversed. If it is unclear what to do and what the impact will be, more time should be allowed to pass in order to make a sensible decision. There is a limit, of course, and it is rare you’ll ever have more than 60-70% of the information you need to make a really great decision, but there is usually a bit more time than you think there is.

But once you know what to do and understand the negative impacts of doing it, you should act quickly and decisively. Opportunities that require big decision-making arise and vanish quickly. You should take care to seek advice from others and inform people who will be impacted before rolling out the change company-wide, but other than that, you should decide, execute and deal with the outcomes as quickly as possible.

Decisions And PPC

This relates directly to managing a PPC agency, but it also relates to managing PPC accounts. Account managers are often more quick to change some bids, add some keywords, test some new destination URL’s when they are unsure about why a change in performance is happening. But they are slower to restructure an account if they know that it’s in the long-term best interest of performance but the short term impact is likely some unpredictable performance as well as a large time investment.

Although a restructure can be an overwhelming and time-consuming process during the overhaul, after it is completed it’s possible that you will gain back a large amount of time in your workweek that you were losing. One of our accounts went from spending 8 hours a week on reporting to 1.5 hours and that is just one of the benefits that presented itself.

What tough decisions are you acting on right now that could be delayed for more data collection? What decision do you know is right, but you’re avoiding because it has a tough outcome?