Minimum Viable Decision

Every organization I’ve ever worked with has struggled at some point with decision-making. Decision-making is tough. But there are ways to do it better.

Here some common problems we encounter in decision-making:

  1. A decision is never made
  2. Decisions don’t get enacted
  3. Decisions get revisited at random

It’s clear why any of these three things can be majorly disruptive to an organization. A decision is a commitment to a certain course of action. If there are no decisions, it may be unclear what course of action is being pursued. If the commitment is not followed, the commitment was worthless in the first place. And finally, if the commitment is always up for questioning, it holds little value (it’s hardly a commitment at all).

Why can decisions be hard to make and maintain? Here are a few common reasons (among many more):

  1. There’s a lot riding on the decision
  2. The consequences are highly ambiguous
  3. Lack of buy-in across actors responsible for carrying out decision

The more that’s riding on the decision, the harder it may be to make. The more pressure there will be to “get things right”, and therefore to spend a lot of time preparing. When consequences are ambiguous, it is harder to evaluate the available options and therefore to choose amongst them. In both cases, there is a strong temptation to revisit decisions before they’re carried out. We have an innate tendency to abhor paths that may contain regret. And of course we’ve all seen people exercise personal “pocket vetoes” on decisions by simply ignoring them.

How do we address these issues in organizational decision-making? Many tangential arenas have codified practices that address similar concerns: agile software development, design thinking, and the validated-learning approach to product/startup development. Many areas of business fall outside these domains, but the approaches pioneered there can be applied more widely.

Inspired by them, I’ve toyed in my head with the concept of a “minimum viable decision” (MVD).  A minimum viable decision is the smallest decision of any consequence that can be taken as early as possible in any process. Instead of waiting to make the “right” decision, see if an MVD is available. Your team might never agree on what the “right” decision might be, but an MVD will help you chart a path forward and gain critical information about your problem domain.

More broadly, it’s about applying the concept of rapid iteration, feedback, and agility to decision making across all aspects of an organization, rather than just the areas where these concepts have gained the most traction.

What are some examples of an MVD?

Instead of making a big decision You make a small one
Promoting a junior developer to a management role Have a junior developer manage a small project
Commit to a direct marketing strategy Try direct marketing in one neighborhood
Get an accountant Talk to an accountant
Hire a telesales role Make 100 cold calls yourself

What are the advantages of a minimum viable decision?

  1. MVDs require less organizational capital to take
  2. It is easier to come to an agreement to an MVD than a Big Decision
  3. Often MVDs are almost always reversible
  4. MVDs are not “bet the ____” moments (e.g., the company, my career, this product, etc.)
  5. By reducing the impact of the decision, it’s easier to implement
  6. Smaller decisions are easier to measure

I’m not advocating that you don’t make big decisions. I am advocating that you arrive at them through a series of smaller, micro-decisions. As Jeff Bezos puts this whole concept brilliantly:

When you look at something like, go back in time when we started working on Kindle almost seven years ago…. There you just have to place a bet. If you place enough of those bets, and if you place them early enough, none of them are ever betting the company. By the time you are betting the company, it means you haven’t invented for too long

Concluding thoughts: 

  • Make smaller decisions
  • Use smaller decisions to get information to feed into future decisions
  • Start making commitments early on in any deliberative process.
  • If you get to a point of deep divergence in your team, you have waited too long