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Most Decisions Are Reversible

I love what Jeff Bezos said in a letter to shareholders:

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions.

But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible – they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.

As organizations get larger, there seems to be a tendency to use the heavy-weight Type 1 decision-making process on most decisions, including many Type 2 decisions. The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention.1 We’ll have to figure out how to fight that tendency.

For me, the big takeaway from that excerpt is: most decisions are not inherently permanent. They are changeable, reversible.

This is something I think about a lot. The best entrepreneurs I’ve worked with are very fast decision makers. They understand that a slow decision is often more dangerous than a wrong decision. Time is the only resource that is impossible to recover, and companies must be ruthless in how they exhaust it. The enemy of a startup is slowness.

I’m not convinced that slow decision making leads to better choices — it’s often a form of procrastination or decision avoidance. Slow decision making is only economical if it (1) greatly increases your odds of making a correct decision, AND (2) yields a different choice than a quick decision would’ve yielded.

Balsamiq’s job page lists the “bad parts” about working at their company (which is itself an awesome idea). One of the “bad” parts they list relates to the importance of high velocity decision making and mistake correction:

We’re reckless sometimes. We believe mistakes don’t matter as much as how fast you fix them and how much we learn from them. We take risks.

This is an ethos I fully subscribe to. In general, entrepreneurs should strive to make decisions quickly, and work to identify and correct wrong decisions with equal expediency.