I watched two people struggle with decisions last week.  The hardest part of watching is that neither one knew they had been struggling far too long.

The people were quite different and were involved in completely different tasks but they were essentially approaching decision making in the same way.

The first was a single mother engaged to a hard working, responsible but self-absorbed man. The second was the IT Director in a small but rapidly expanding company. Both of them had difficult decisions to make that would seriously impact their futures.

The woman suspected that her fiancé would become more and more absorbed in his work and personal interests and she would end up more a servant than a partner. Her friends were encouraging her to reconsider; her best friend thought she was crazy to go through with it.

The Director had an employee who was falling behind as the company grew. The director’s boss had been pushing him for three months to find a new position for the employee that was within his capabilities, but the Director wanted to make sure he was being fair.

In most situations both of these people were competent and decisive, but this was different. The life-altering potential of their decisions changed how confident they wanted to feel before they acted. They both, had, without realizing it, adopted the rigorous legal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

Here’s the problem. Usually when an idea arises we’ve already been analyzing the situation in the deep recesses of our minds. This is where the real heavy lifting of deciding happens. But by the time the idea reaches conscious thought, most people think they need to analyze more.

The graph below demonstrates the issue. Both of our decision makers were 50% certain that they needed to make a change about two-weeks after the idea occurred. Half-certain was nowhere near certain enough in their minds.

It took them another two months to get to 80% certain. At this point they were getting serious external pressure to decide. Considering the potential consequences, 80% wasn’t enough certainty. Gaining the next 10% took another three months.

That’s the problem with certainty: every incremental increase in certainty takes an exponential expansion of time.

 

Successful decision makers proceed to action knowing that they have done due diligence, but they will probably never get to 100% certainty. The real kicker is that we almost always make the same decision, whether we’re 80%, 90%, or 100% certain; we just delay it, wasting time and resources in the process. Taking more time is too often about preparing ourselves for the consequences of a decision that turns out to be wrong. Sometimes we delay so long that the decision gets made for us, or the opportunity goes away. This often comes as a relief.

The moral?  If we don’t decide, we can’t be wrong, but the cost is often greater.