It often goes unnoticed until it is too late. The calendar starts to fill as you get brought in to more and more meetings. The pings in Slack are keeping you at work later and later. The email chain back and forths grows longer and longer. Everywhere around you there are decisions to be made and everyone is looking at you to make them.
Being a founder or early leader at a startup and helping your company grow is a great feeling, but what happens when it all becomes too much? When the more you take on, the more things start to slow down? When goals are missed because deadlines keep slipping? And worst of all, when burnout sets in.
Are you the bottleneck in your business's decision making process?
In the book, Beyond Collaboration Overload by Rob Cross, we meet Scott who has an amazing career trajectory that nearly collapses around him. What happened? Collaboration Overload turned Scott, a well-respected leader, into a massive bottleneck. We learn that of his 115 reports, 78 of them relied on Scott to make decisions that would unblock their work.
While that all sounds like big company BS, bottlenecks can happen in any sized business, and can often have the worst impacts at startups when the need for speed is crucial. The important thing for a startup to recognize is how to build a culture that can prevent bottlenecks while you are building your business.
Since most bottlenecks are the result of overstretched leadership and micromanagement, it is up to founders and leaders to drive the changes required to reduce and remove them.
Here are four steps leaders can take to remove the decision making bottlenecks that are holding back your business from moving faster:
- Weigh a decision’s impact level
- Delegate decisions to area experts
- Keep decisions timebound
- Document and distribute decision outcomes
Let’s dig into each one of these a little deeper.
Weigh a decision’s impact level
Let me put it to you bluntly: most decisions being made in your startup are not irreversible mission-critical decisions. Most decisions will not sink your company. Accepting this is a first step towards preventing bottlenecks.
The idea of one-way and two-way door decisions was popularized by Jeff Bezos during a 1997 shareholders letter:
“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.
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.”
When one-way door decisions do pop up, they tend to be those mission critical decisions at a startup that require leadership’s involvement. One example might be who the first hires are since they will have such a huge impact on the early stages of building the business and in establishing the baseline of the culture being built.
However, many other two-way door decisions and non-mission critical decisions should be delegated to area experts within your organization.
Delegate decisions to area experts
Breaking away from the micromanagement mentality that consumes so many startup founders (after all it is your baby) and being able to delegate decisions is crucial for success. It frees you up to focus on the high level time consuming decisions and allows everyone to move faster.
That’s why Jennifer Dulski, author of Purposeful, suggests that leaders take a 90/10 approach to delegating decisions. The idea is to delegate most of the two-way door decisions, so that you can focus more on the few one-way door decisions that remain.
By delegating decisions to members of your team who are area experts in their field, not only will decisions be made faster but will also tend to lead to better results. Research shows that bringing in different people from diverse social, cultural, and educational backgrounds leads to more creative ideas and divergent perspectives when it comes to problem solving.
As a bonus, employees who are involved in the decision making process at their jobs report higher job satisfaction and are more invested in their roles and the company.
When delegating decisions, be clear about the roles that people will play in the decision making process. While there are many decision making frameworks that you could follow, keep things simple to start by establishing who the decision maker is as well as any contributors.
While other people might need to hear about the decision later, they aren’t critical while the decision is being made. Keep decision making and decision sharing separate. That way your decision-making team can be small and efficient, and ultimately faster.
Keep Decisions Timebound
How often have you seen bottlenecks occur simply because an open decision has languished undecided? Maybe it feels like there is a need to gather more information before deciding or a decision maker was never established (luckily we took care of that one above), but either way this type of bottleneck can have compounding implications.
An important aspect of being a startup, especially one that is trying to establish product market fit or define their target customer profile, is to be constantly moving forward while hypothesizing, experimenting, learning, and iterating. However, this can only happen if decisions are being made quickly and then implemented.
Most decisions, especially two-door decisions do not need 100% of the data to be effectively made. Making fast informed decisions with the information at hand is going to ultimately be more effective than trying to make the perfect decision through a long dragged out process. Plus, if you’re wrong, you learn and walk back through that two way door, ideally arriving at the right answer more quickly!
When weighing a decision make sure to set a reasonable due date for the decision to be made and stick to it. Decision makers should feel empowered to keep contributors accountable to the deadline to keep the process moving forward.
Document and distribute decision outcomes
The final step in breaking your startup’s decision making bottlenecks is to openly document and share the decision outcome so that people can move forward. Not doing so can create additional bottlenecks as projects get stalled awaiting information that should be readily available.
If you don’t write down what you've decided, you can never learn from it (regardless of whether the outcome was good or bad). It’s critical for your company to decide, learn and improve in a constant cycle and without a log of your decisions, that learning is much harder to accomplish.
Too often decisions can happen in meetings or chat threads within a small group of people and wind up being misremembered or forgotten. At Hoop, we believe that if a decision wasn’t documented and distributed, it wasn’t decided.
Document company decisions in an accessible location, like Hoop’s decision log, so that the who, what, where, when, and why around a decision can be easily shared when the decision reaches an outcome and recalled in the future when someone inevitably forgets about it.
Remember Scott from Beyond Collaboration Overload who I referenced earlier? The bottlenecks he was creating took not only his work but also his personal life and health to their breaking point. Preventing bottlenecks requires a shift in attitude that many leaders fail to address, but the ones that do will find themselves able to focus on the work that they enjoy most and move their business faster towards its goals. Even more importantly, you will be surrounded by colleagues who are less stressed and more fulfilled at work.