Sometimes you just do not know what to expect. Case in point with SxSW where I was the week before. If you do not know, SxSW is a conference hosted every March based in Austin. It started as a music festival in 1987, then added film and tech programs. This was where Twitter famously got its first big exposure back in 2007.
I was on the fence about going though. In my role as a startup advocate, I need to allocate my time wisely in order to connect with as many entrepreneurs and founders as possible. Would it be busy like years before COVID shut it down? Was it going to be worth my time to attend? If I did go, would there be anyone worth meeting?
Even at a reduced size, the value of being at SxSW in person was definitely worth it. While the talks themselves were interesting, it was the interactions I had and the random collisions of people I met during the week. Even if just a tiny fraction of the follow-ups SxSW amount to anything, it would have been worth the trip.
It could also have been a complete waste of time. I am a believer in the power of serendipity though. While I certainly have plans, I do my best not to overplan or overthink. I let the flow of the event dictate where I spent my time. When others provided suggestions of things to do, my instincts were to follow and I was well rewarded for taking the leap.
So this begs the question, how do my instincts help me to make better decisions?
In the context above, attending a conference and bouncing to different places is low stakes. I am not really risking a whole lot if I walk into a place and the scene isn’t working for me. Even the winning moments, like getting into a party where Run from Run DMC was DJing, was fun but not life-changing.
These same instincts, mine internal divining rod, to find where the action is also helps me in my personal and professional life. Whether it is career choices, project assignments, or places to move, all were built on a simple premise. Just make a decision, or as Nike would say, just do it.
My friend Tom who I met for lunch recently shared a story that is pretty relevant when it comes to decision making. Years back, Tom was one of the parents that would help on the local boy scout troop camping trips. During these outings, each of the adults in the troop would take turns on cooking duty.
One of Tom's friends was tasked with breakfast, and he would stop every few minutes to ask Tom what to do. What type of eggs should I make? How big of a fire do I need? How do I toast the bread? There was more time spent asking questions, and the troop was getting hungry.
Finally after fielding a barrage of questions, Tom stopped his friend in mid-sentence, looked him in the eye, and said, “Who's making the breakfast? Are you making breakfast or am I?”
Sometimes you have to plow ahead without all the answers and just get things done. That is the key to avoiding a terrible affliction known as decision paralysis. Fundamentally, I have always believed that you get farther faster when you make decisions rather than sitting back and waiting for the right answer to magically fall from the sky.
At Amazon, we also believe in making decisions faster. We have a framework called “one-way and two-way doors” that helps us in decision making. One-way doors are the decisions of significant consequence. Once you choose that door, you cannot go back. Two-way doors are decisions that you can roll back without a lot of negative consequences. In fact, most decisions in life and in our careers are two-way doors.
Not every two-way door you open is going to lead to a successful outcome. The code you wrote and uploaded crashes the site, the new functionality gets no users, the architecture choice you made leads to limited ability to scale. The mistakes hurt, but we use this as an opportunity to learn from so we can be better prepared next time.
Beyond the idea of one-way and two-way doors, I also use a framework that helps me to get more directionally correct when I am making decisions. There are three concepts; destination clarity, decision muscle memory and pattern recognition.
Destination clarity is similar to vision. Vision is often associated with organization or corporate framing. While the destination I have for my life might align with the company I work for, that is only a portion of what matters holistically as I look long-term towards what I seek to achieve.
The destination is often not clear at the beginning. Even the path to get there is often murky, but I have at least a signal that I can see ahead to guide me. Greater signal clarity comes as I make choices that help define the shape of that destination, so it becomes clearer the closer I get.
This leads to decision “muscle memory”. In order to get good at making decisions quickly, you need to make a lot of decisions. Framing decisions as one-way and two-way doors helps a lot because it gives you the freedom to take more risk and to experiment. If you choose the wrong door, you can always walk it back, recover, and try another door.
Making lots of decisions quickly though also has its downsides. It means you are also wrong a lot. Early in my career, I experienced epic failures, from busted demos, to dropping production databases, to mistakenly deleting source code. In my own tech startup, I often share that I made every mistake one could make as an entrepreneur.
The inventor Thomas Edison once said this:
"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."
How did Edison eventually find success without giving up? He developed pattern recognition. By having those past experiences, he learned what “good” results look like. This is why athletes and performing artists practice intensely. Practice provides the reps to gain a feel for the right motions, which builds the foundation for establishing viable patterns.
We flex those same patterns in our work. Early in our careers, we are usually tasked with writing code for non-critical functions. Often this code is complete trash, but over time, code reviews, and taking on more complex work, patterns form. The same process applies to negotiating story points, working with managers, and anything else for that matter involving people.
There are no shortcuts to pattern recognition other than doing the work. A favorite Andy Jassy (CEO of Amazon) saying is, “there is no compression algorithm for experience”. There are mechanisms however that can help accelerate or improve your pattern recognition.
Find a mentor - Find someone that has already excelled in your own desired career path and is invested in your career.
Shadow more senior colleagues - This is often less structured and more flexible than a formal mentorship arrangement.
Hire a career / executive coach - This requires investment but a great coach can dramatically accelerate your career.
Join a startup - There is no better environment when it comes to taking on responsibility and acquiring experience.
Take on a more senior role - With more responsibility comes more decision making opportunities.
Collaborate across teams - Seeing how other teams operate helps you better understand and navigate internal politics.
Read more books - Provides a good source for ideas and framework that you can then put into practice.
Volunteer at a non-profit - Excellent environment to see human dynamics at work outside of purely monetary motivations.
Decision paralysis is slow death. The compounding effects of making decisions too slowly creates a vicious cycle where you hinder your personal and professional growth, and you lose opportunities to achieve your goals. Using the idea of one-way, two-way doors coupled with my framework for making better decisions will help you to push ahead with more confidence and to help you to make the right decisions more consistently.
What is your framework for decision making? What type of barriers exist today that prevent you from making decisions faster in your organization?
Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS
P.S I am pretty certain that I will be in Miami the week of April 4th. Then I am in NYC for FinTech Week and the AWS Summit in San Francisco the week of April 18th. Last week in April, I am in Singapore, then I head to Berlin May 11th for the AWS Summit in Germany. If you are in any of these places, ping me by replying to this newsletter or message me on LinkedIn.
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