Do Something, So We Can Change It!

A habit for addressing two-way decisions.

July 31, 2023 • 3 min read

Sometimes teams get stuck on a decision.

My favourite trick for getting unstuck comes via Pixar’s Michael B. Johnson. In 25 years there, he helped Pixar build the production workflows they use to make and iterate their stories, and was tasked with helping teams “fail as quickly as possible.” To illustrate the value of this, he once shared a story:

Back in the day, famed Broadway director Gower Champion was directing a musical. With time pressure mounting, he entered the theatre during a rehearsal and was alarmed to see the cast just standing around on stage. The choreographer was just sitting there, in the second row of the audience, his head in his hands.

The director asked, “What’s going on?”

“I just don’t know what to do next,” the choreographer lamented.

The director blinked. “Well, do something, so we can change it!”

I love this story – partially because it’s pithy, but moreso because it illustrates a core principle for getting teams unstuck.

Two Way Doors

At Amazon, they talk about this same idea by encouraging teams to recognize “two-way doors.” In this model, a one-way door is a decision that is mostly irreversible: Should we take VC money? Should we build out a new office? Should we pay billions to buy a company, then systematically obliterate its accumulated reputation and userbase in an attempt to inflate our overgrown yet still incredibly fragile egos? Irreversible decisions like these need to be considered thoughtfully – if you don’t like the consequences, there is no undo.

Most decisions, though, are two-way doors. Should we change this wording on the website? Should we try out a new freelancer? Should we rehearse a potentially-bad dance choreography? Two-way doors can be taken, and once you see the effects, later un-taken. These choices can be iterated, refined, re-evaluated. We learn from our first attempt, however naive. Two-way door decisions don’t require in-depth analysis or attempts to form consensus, so they can be made quickly and efficiently, or often delegated.

Two-way decisions are so much easier to make and learn from that it’s often worth trying to turn one-way doors into two-way doors. Maybe you consider taking venture debt instead of investment. Maybe you rent an office instead of buying it. Maybe you put some conditions on your $44 billion acquisition offer, and – if the deal goes through – maybe you refrain from repeatedly permanently sabotaging it, like some kind of ridiculous gibbon. You know, that kind of thing.

The point is this: sometimes, we need to make an irreversible decision. Most often, though, we simply need to do something for now, so we can keep moving. So we can learn.

So we can change it.

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