In 1960, Draper Daniels published a vignette about the advertising industry in Advertising Age:
“With a ton of charts and a wondrous plan,
He comes, behold, the Research Man.
Give him four and twenty scholars,
Give him twenty thousand dollars,
And in two months he’ll bring to view
The facts that you already knew.”
The point, of course, is not to suggest that research is unimportant, but that we often use it to tell ourselves what we already know or want to think.
Or as David Ogilvy put it, we can sometimes “use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost—not for illumination but for support.”
And the support we’re usually looking for is certainty about the future, a definitive answer about what comes next.
And we’re willing to wait for it.
So we’ll commission more and more research. We’ll read more and more blogs, books, and journals. And we’ll keep putting off making a decision about our marketing until we’re certain it’s going to work.
But waiting for more information eventually changes from diligence to delay.
And delay turns into its own decision: the decision not to act at all.
Because, as decision consultant Annie Duke wrote, “There is fundamentally no such thing as ‘not deciding.’ Choosing not to decide, or to ‘wait and see,’ is a decision in itself.”
If we’ve been thinking about launching a new marketing campaign, but we’re waiting to know for sure that it’s going to work, we’ve decided not to launch it.
If we want change in our business, but we don’t want to change how we’re running it until we’re certain, we’ve decided to ride things out as is.
And if we’ve spent fortunes (in money or time) on research, but we’re no more clear on what to do next, we’ve decided not to do anything at all.
Because if we want positive change, we must be willing to make big decisions without certainty. We must be able to take action without knowing for sure what will happen next.
That doesn’t mean we blindly guess, act rashly, or take unnecessary risks. In her book Thinking in Bets, Duke gives us instructions for making good decisions in an uncertain world:
1. Prioritize reversibility: When it’s hard to be confident placing a big bet on a singular, particular future, look for options that you can change or reverse at a reasonable cost.
2. Exercise options in parallel: Exercising multiple options helps you to gather information more quickly about which options are fruitful, blunts the impact of any single option faring poorly, and defrays the opportunity cost of picking one option over another.
3. Establish signposts: Before making any big decisions, engage in a simple exercise of mental time travel. Imagine what additional information or later developments would lead you to revise the decision.
Instead of waiting for certainty about your marketing, figure out the best decision you can make that you can reverse if things go wrong.
Instead of locking yourself into one path too early, devise a way to test multiple good options so you can choose the best performer.
And instead of hoping it all works out, figure out ahead of time how you can make ongoing adjustments to increase your chances of success.
“Action yields information,” as Blair Enns says, and with that information we can make better and better decisions, and better and better adjustments to the decisions we’ve already made.
And once we’ve made our decision, we need to act fast. “We need to hurry,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “because our understanding—our grasp of the world—may be gone before we get there.” The facts we based our decision on may change, so to maximize our probability of success, we need to move quickly once we’ve decided.
The alternative is to stay the course despite the territory changing out from under us. To keep doing what we’ve been doing—or not doing—and hoping that we’ll get a different outcome.
The world has never been stable—it only looks that way once a branching and foggy future cements into a fixed and immovable past. We can never be certain about how things will turn out.
“Absent omniscience,” Duke wrote, “it is difficult to tell why anything happened the way it did.” So we must make decisions based on careful strategy, consideration of the impact of our actions, and the probabilities of success and failure.
That’s the best we can hope for, but it’s enough, and far better than indecision.
“Anything is better than indecision,” as U.S. Grant once said. Because “not to decide wastes both time and money.”
“And may ruin everything.”