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The hidden costs of indecision

Senior Editor, Intercom

Geoffrey Keating

@geoffreykeating

Main illustration: Alicja Colon

One of the most expensive parts of running a startup isn’t the new feature you shipped that nobody used or the marketing experiment you ran that failed. It’s indecision.

You might have have heard the story of Buridan’s Ass (no laughing down the back), the story of a donkey stuck between two identical stacks of hay. Because the donkey lacks any reason to choose one over the other, it cannot decide which one to eat, and so starves to death.

Our setting isn’t the farmyard but the meeting room. Picture the following scene: eight people in a room endlessly debating over a whiteboard, weighing up one decision over the next, but with little sign of progress being made. Tough decisions take time. But if every single decision at your company is agonized over, with no progress to show for it, alarm bells should be ringing.

At best, it’s an opportunity cost. Using basic meeting math, for every eight hours of indecision, you’re trading eight hours of productivity – hours you could spend actually executing one of the options you’re agonising over. Add in salaries, hourly rates and attention diverted and the costs are greater still.

At worst, indecision can lead to analysis paralysis, a slow poison that will slow you down and kill your morale. People can end up frozen by indecision, which creates a willingness to abdicate responsibility. There are hundreds of ways to say “Let’s wait until…”, in the hope that new information will make your decision easier. But you can’t always wait for the perfect conditions to set your course.

Great companies are rarely built one indecisive step at a time. Startups especially aren’t designed to tread water. This isn’t about “throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks, but most of your time should be spent doing, not choosing. I can’t think of a single better way to spend a couple of hours that has more impact than making a decision, sticking to it, and coming up with a few ways to execute it.

You can think and debate about a decision all day long. Or you can try stuff out and see what works. But wait, what happens if we screw up and make the wrong decision? It’s ok. This isn’t open heart surgery. This is software. Wrong decisions are temporary and usually much less expensive than making none at all.


Credit: Image based on XKCD