Over the years I’ve noticed that one area that many leaders (including myself) can often improve on, is the ability to take action at the right time, based upon the right amount of information. Leadership is often about setting a direction. That direction comes from making a decision about what needs to be done. Some leaders take action on very little direction, while others seem to never have enough to make a decision.
The problem with taking action on too little information is that you often make the wrong decision because you are not fully informed of the details. Take for instance this one time when an executive I worked with wanted one of my team members to go on-site to address a customer’s problem. The only issue was, no one had researched yet what the source of the problem was. And since my guy could only address about 25% of the potential issues, I saw it as a 75% chance of a wasted trip. (Note, this wasn’t a trip across town, but one that would involve airfare, overnight travel and at least two days of lost productivity at the office). I put the brakes on sending the person out, and instead had a trained technician call and walk through the issues. As it turned out, a local technician was able to swing by the customer’s location and fix the problem in a couple of hours. The customer was much happier than if they had waited two days only to have the wrong person show up. My company was better off because we saved thousands of dollars in travel expenses and lost productivity.
On the other hand, some people take entirely too long to make a decision. This is often called “analysis paralysis”. Over the years, I’ve often found myself involved with decisions that could never be made, because there was always that “one more” piece of information. A similar issue is “next year’s version” of the software or product will be better. These decisions (or the lack thereof) also cost the company money. They cause lost productivity, lost opportunity costs and overall frustration among team members. I’ve also noticed that the likelihood of these problems increase exponentially with the number of people involved in making the decision. That’s one reason I love working in a smaller company.
Every leader must become comfortable with making decisions at the right time. The time is not a measure of days, but a measure of knowing when you know enough. Rudy Giuliani, in his book “Leadership” talks about the principle of “Reflect, Then Decide”. He says that he never makes up his mind until he has to. Recognizing when you “have to” is the key to good leadership. One of the principles Mr. Giuliani illustrates is relentless preparation. The more data you have, the more communications you have with your team, the quality of the people giving you advice, all impact your ability to come to a decision quickly.
The bottom line is that no one can tell you exactly when to make any particular decision. It’s a skill gained over time. By learning what works and what doesn’t, it’s something that’s inside the gut of a good leader. But it takes preparation, confidence and good information to make the right decision at the right time.