In times of tough decisions, leaders need to know how to choose between a rock and a hard place. Many good businesses are facing difficult and uncertain times. Normal business has been disrupted. How and when normal trading can continue is in doubt. There are many tough choices where the normal answers just won’t work. Here, I lay out three steps to help you make impossible decisions.
Step 1 is to find all paths out of the dilemma.
Between the rock and the hard place is there hidden cave that leads out to the beach and the ship to safety? Will you ride with Tolkien’s Frodo on the wings of saving eagles? Can you make the Casino Royale escape and jump from crane to crane with Daniel Craig? What seemingly impossible thing could you achieve with a little time and support?
Having spent years building up an opportunity into something that starts to look like a sustainable business, some business owners are facing tough decisions about what they sacrifice to ride out this storm. In stressful times, we need to consider what assumptions we’ve made and what rules really apply in our situation. With a little rest our creativity can come out of its hiding place. New options will emerge: once you can think of four options for any situation you can start making innovative decisions.
Step 2 is knowing when to make that decision.
Sometimes, the impossible choices need to be made. Choosing when to make them may be the only self-determined option you have. Is it something you need to do now? Is there a way to buy some time? Can you, like Robinson Crusoe, find some water, shelter, and fish to give yourself some thinking time for a proper rescue plan? With business being forced to move at pace, we habitually learn that any decision and forward movement has greater value than the right decision a little later. When playing a game of many small decisions, that is probably true. But for big decisions, decisions about the long-term future, take a breath and think about the data first.
If you have one shot at leaping between passing cranes, timing is everything. Understand when you need to make the decision and what information you need at that time. Then be prepared and be there.
Step 3 is knowing your purpose and values – your reference point for tough decisions.
When all your options seem bad, doing nothing isn’t viable and you genuinely can’t find an attractive alternative, how do you decide? Go back to your purpose and values: why does the business exist and what do you care about? Ideally, you’ve spent months working on those so that all the little decisions have supported your objectives and strategy. If your decisions are at odds with your purpose and values, you will find yourself with incongruent feelings and a sub-optimal business. But some organisations don’t embody what is written on their website and that makes the difficult times harder.
Early in my career as a consultant, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Raymond Blanc and discuss management. The menu was innovative and faultless (to my eyes and my palette) but the lessons were of greater value. M. Blanc was clear about a few things that mattered to him
A few years later (2007) Raymond Blanc appeared on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen. He discussed with James Martin before the Omelette Challenge how UK food has changed and that now everyone could make good food at home. The rules of the Omelette Challenge game are simple: the chef who cooks fastest omelette wins. Raymond Blanc broke the rules and cooked a great omelette. He demonstrated omelettes can be fast food. He kept to his values, even garnishing the finished omelette with truffle shavings. He was slower than every chef who has ever competed. He followed his ‘Why?’ with integrity. Who won the challenge in the long term? The chef who holds the world record for the fastest omelette or the man who proved that good slow food can be quick too?
That is the point of all those mission statement and strategy sessions: understanding ‘why?’. Your business’s purpose is ‘why?’. Your business’s values are the organisational culture; the ‘how?’ that serves the ‘why?’. A leader’s decisions shape their business’s culture. Those decisions show ‘how things are done here’. If the stated purpose and values don’t match your decisions, your people know you aren’t authentic.
For that big decision, be authentic. Stick with the purpose and values. Or at least be honest with yourself about on which values you really base your decisions. Consider taking the opportunity of this unusual situation to update your team’s view of what really matters in your business. Then they will know what decisions you expect of them.. Now is not the time to pretend, too much is at stake.
The UK Government has made exceptional provision to support businesses during this emergency. This support changes weekly, as conditions progress. Regularly check to see if there is a rope from a friendly helicopter to snatch you or your team away to safety: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus/business-support
If you need help working out the purpose and values of your business as you change your direction, contact me.
I work alongside executive directors (C-Suite) and board members to make strategy executable. That means developing transformation strategy plans, defining target operating models and organisation…
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