One of startups’ superpowers is quick decision-making. Early on, this might just mean decisions are made rapidly by one person. Of course, this doesn’t scale. If you don’t find ways to scale up good decision-making, your company will slow down and – eventually – die.
There are a lot of habits that help scale decision-making. You hire great people. You empower them. You focus on a small set of important decisions. You foster a safe space for ideas. You make smart 80/20 tradeoffs. Classic leadership stuff.
That said, one such habit works whether or not you’re in leadership. I dare say it works best if you’re not in leadership. That habit is proposing things.
Let me give you an example.
There’s a meeting going on. A group of smart people are trying to move forward on something. It’s complex enough that differing perspectives come up, some tradeoffs are discussed, and it’s not 100% clear what the best path forward is. If you’re unlucky, there will be imperfect psychological safety on the team, meaning some people aren’t yet comfortable saying something that might be wrong.
Under this tension, teams tend to get stuck in a loop discussing. Even after a good path forward has surfaced, even if a decision would be easy to change later, smart people enjoy exploring details and alternatives. Meanwhile, folks who think it’s time to move on but are feeling uncertain will beat around the bush, tossing out phrases like:
“Okay… any more thoughts on this?”
“It seems like we don’t have a plan.”
“All right, so, do we have a decision, or..?”
At best, these spur somebody else – who may not understand the details as clearly – to propose a path forward. Often, though, they trigger further open-ended conversation, when a decision was within reach.
Instead, I propose you say the following:
“It sounds like Y, so I propose we try X. Seem reasonable?”
Give a micro-summary of the situation, propose a way forward, and let folks object or rally behind what you’ve said. You don’t need to use the word “propose”, you just need to propose something. For example:
It sounds like Engineering is comfortable with the 1-2 week timeframe for getting this live, and this is our top priority feature right now, so it seems like we should queue it next. Sound good?
If your leaders are any good, they’ll appreciate somebody offering a concrete potential solution.
In the modern-classic leadership book Turn This Ship Around!, author David Marquet coached his crew – who he would describe as the true leaders of the ship – to stop asking him what they should do, and instead propose what they thought should be done. For example:
Captain, I intend to submerge the ship. We are in water we own, water depth has been checked and is four hundred feet, all men are below, the ship is rigged for dive, and I’ve certified my watch team.
With a clear proposal and context, the Captain could simply reply,
Of course, your tech company is not a nuclear submarine. (I hope. Please no nuclear submarine startups, folks.) Neither your summary nor proposal need to be bulletproof, and there are likely more ambiguities in your line of work than in the correct operation of a naval vessel. But the habit of proposing things is still aces.
The goal is to come to a good decision. If you don’t have a good proposal yet, proposing a way to evaluate proposals – or even articulating a known-bad proposal – often leads to helpful discussion and a resolution.
The point is: once you understand the problem at hand, your team is most effective when people are talking about proposals – not when they’re waiting around hoping somebody will propose something.
So go ahead. Propose something.