Strategic decisions – a minute early, or a minute late
January 20, 2015
Last Saturday (17 Jan 2015) the Singapore Straits Times published an article written by the former US Ambassador to Singapore, Frank Lavin, who wrote about the difficulties of strategic decision-making. His context is in governments’ decisions to either order pre-emptive strikes against terrorist organisations, or to wait for more information. He calls them the minute early or minute late decisions respectively. You can read the article in its entirety here (http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/minute-early-or-minute-late-20150117
While the article is predicated on action against terrorism, I would like to point out that businesses also face this dilemma in their strategy. In this article I make that connection and invite readers to share their preference for the minute early or minute late strategies.
Minute Early Decisions
Lavin wrote about the minute early decisions as those that are acted upon without clear and unequivocal intelligence. They are acted upon before the moment of impact of an event; in his case, a terrorist strike. Minute early decisions require leadership because there is chance that it would be wrong (recall the invasion of Iraq and not finding weapons of mass destruction) and the leader would have to assume responsibility, and possible fallout. You may sometimes hear minute early decisions makers uttering, “If only we had waited!”
Minute Late Decisions
Minute late decisions, by contrast, waits for the event to occur before striking out. They are best summed up by the utterance of, “If only we had acted sooner!” Minute late decision makers need confirmation, and will not act in the face of uncertainty. It reminds me of the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” in which Capt John Earle demands confirmation that an attack on Pearl Habour was impending. Finally the reporting officer, Lieutenant Kaminsky shouts on the phone during the attack, “Here’s your confirmation!” Yet minute late decision makers will be able to muster the resources, galvanise dissenting views and organise action more quickly. After all, it is now a response, not a pre-emptive strike.
In strategic decision-making, there will always be a tussle between being minute early or minute late. The more hawkish leaders tend to favour taking a position on the future and then striking that with some force. Since betting on the future is always a stab in the dark, there are possibilities of mistakes. Yet smart minute-early decision makers put in place indicators to signal to them where the situation is heading and pivoting the strategy, if necessary.
Minute late strategic decision makers are more cautious and need to have proof that the environment is changing, and moving toward one end or another. While they might accept the minute-early possibilities, they usually defer to a safer, more calculated approach in their strategies. They focus on mitigating the possibility of being wrong in their assumptions of the future, rather than the impact of being right. This might cause them to be flat-footed in the face of a tsunami of change. Yet, as Lavin noted, minute-late decision making has “a seductive quality to it, catering to people’s desire for certainty, as well as to bureaucratic inertia.”
Mindset and decision-making
This discussion mirrors by an earlier article I wrote about the fixed and growth mindsets.
Fixed mindset people are driven by data and make decisions on valid and verified information. While they claim to take calculated risks, the key word is calculated rather than risks. There is a false sense of security in the information they use to make decisions. When lulled by the Confirmation Bias, fixed mindset decision makers will be very adamant in the wrong strategy. This may lead to spectacular failures.
By contrast, the growth mindset decision makers move despite the lack of clarity. It is in uncertainty that they find white spaces to move into. They work quickly to establish assumptions, and move out of the space when they are found to be wrong. They mitigate risk not on the spreadsheets but in the marketplace. They place small bets, leveling up when it becomes bigger. They are not afraid of calling the baby ugly because they learn through action. They perfect the decision as it goes along.
Which is better?
It is difficult to say which style of decision-making is better because it is defined by the environment. Most people would prefer to be a minute late, so that we are sure of where the future is heading. But in some situations, becoming a minute late has huge, and sometimes catastrophic, consequences. That is when we truly admire the leaders who are a minute early.