The Superposition Leadership Fallacy

Advice often heard is that one should refrain from making decisions until absolutely necessary. The logic behind it is that by keeping your options open, you will be able to make the “right” decision, as opposed to prematurely committing to a suboptimal choice. Sounds good, right? However, it’s often the wrong thing to do, especially for executives in tech. This article will describe why I believe this is a fallacy that has become too popular in our industry.

You are often better off making a decision faster, even if it turns out not to be the “perfect” one. I know that the notion of knowingly not aiming for perfection might cross some people, especially those coming from a technical background such as myself, but it is an integral part of leadership. Mainly, that’s because waiting for the “ideal” choice to become apparent often doesn’t take into account the opportunity cost that’s bundled up into your waiting game.

Not making a decision right now is a decision, too! If you’ve considered all other options and decided this was the right approach, be my guest. But let us first cover the hidden costs in this approach, so you can make your decisions in a more educated manner.

I first learned that having too many options has a paralyzing effect when I used to consult to companies about their technical roadmaps and architecture. It was striking to see how even the brightest minds would be unable to take a step forward when facing too many choices. I realized that in order to get people out of this stasis, I had to start by making some decisions—any decisions. That’s when I came up with my Straw-man Architecture approach (which years later I realized I wasn’t the first to think of), where I drew up the most trivial way of doing things and then showed that to the engineers I was working with. Having everything become simpler almost magically made it easier for them to tell me what I was doing wrong, what is a better solution, and so on.

The same applies to many leadership situations: the mere act of making some choices can clear up the fog and make it easier to understand where you should be going. When you make your default be waffling on decisions—especially when those decisions don’t have high stakes in the first place—you collect too many possibilities that fog up your future. How can you think about where you should be headed if each step has infinite possibilities?

I like to think of it as a Sudoku game. In the beginning, there are so many possibilities, and trying to hold them all in your head as you try to figure out the right path forward gets harder and harder. I get in a loop: I realize that I’ve gotten confused and have to start over. That’s when simply making a choice works its magic. I know that a certain box can have a few possible numbers in it. I decide on one and mark it as a guess, and continue from there. Once I find an inconsistency, I know the guess was wrong and go back. You can do the same with many of your daily choices.

Moreover, thinking that you can wait for the ideal moment to make a decision is a misconception. More often than not, you won’t recognize that the time has come until later. That then means that you are committing to a surefire way of losing momentum and creating a culture of dilly-dallying—without a clear upside.

The superposition principle here means that we aren’t getting the benefit of “leaving options open” or “enjoying both worlds.” Schrödinger’s cat might be both alive and dead, but organizations run like this are neither alive nor dead! They are more akin to zombies, in my view. Strategic projects, stretch goals, change initiatives—all require all of your goodwill, intent, and trust to execute in a busy organization. Doing so when it seems that you aren’t fully committed to a specific direction can stop your efforts dead in their tracks. So you have a lot of stuff on your calendar, but nothing of worth gets done.

Trying to live with this superposition is increasing your cognitive load. Just like a laptop with too many browser tabs open, each choice left in limbo takes up more and more of your mental resources. You have a finite amount of them, by the way. The opportunity cost is that in the time that you’re sitting and waiting for the time that’s “just right” to act, you could have probably iterated a few times on an initial decision, gained momentum, and moved on. Instead, you give way for a dilatory culture to form.

All that to say that you have a choice here—and it is a choice you should make right now. Stop defaulting to the decide-later camp. When faced with a decision with risks that have reasonable preventive measures and contingencies—just decide to decide. Collapse the wave function and get out of superposition.

Check out my new workshop in a couple of weeks about measuring yourself and your organization. Let’s make 2022 ridiculously successful!