We are comfortable making decisions based on a variety of inputs, including opinions. In the absence of data, we’re even comfortable making decisions with opinions as the sole input, as long as these opinions are believable.

The challenge

Running a company is about making a ton of decisions rapidly.

Even more, making decisions faster than your competitors is arguably the only sustainable competitive advantage, on the one condition that you learn from these decisions. No one will make all of the right decisions all of the time so it’s much better optimizing for fast decision making and learning than optimizing for making the right decisions.

Now, the % of decisions you get right out of the gate does matter. If you can be right from the beginning half of the time that’s way better than if only 10% of your initial decisions turn out right. And that’s where it gets hairy.

What do we base decision making on at Awell to maximize the % of decisions where we are right, without compromising on speed of decision making?

We can’t make decisions based on data alone

In an ideal world, you have 100% information and can make data-driven decisions all the time. But there are some problems with this:

  1. You never have 100% information so there is always uncertainty

  2. Collecting data and turning data into information takes time, slowing down the decision making process

  3. People regularly overestimate the accuracy of data and underestimate their ability to interpret it in the correct way

  4. Data can be misleading if it’s not interpreted in the right context. Context by definition is captured by language and understanding, not by raw numbers

We can go on but the above should be sufficient to point out why it’s futile to exclude anything else but data and information based on data for decision making.

An additional point is that we only have one brain, with limited processing capacity. Imagine you need to take a decision and you have perfect information, but that perfect information consists of one billion data points. You’ll never be able to hold all of those data points in your head. More and more research shows making decisions with the gut is not just acceptable but enables better, faster and more accurate decisions.

Therefore, for all our decision making we should be comfortable taking other inputs into account. These can be qualitative external input such as interviews with customers, but also our opinions, intuition and gut feel.

Why we should not ban believable opinions from our decision making

Popular opinion (pun intended) in high growth companies is that opinions are bad. But as we argued above, there will never be perfect information and there will always be some degree of opinion involved. Instead of seeing opinions as black sheep and trying to ban them, we should recognize they are a natural element of decision making and identify what’s behind them so we can incorporate them into our decisions.

People with experience in a particular domain have accumulated insights and knowledge that are not captured by data. We hire people with a specific experience and expertise exactly because they can shortcut the decision making process. Their opinions are based on this wealth of learnings so they become believable opinions.

And even a person just out of school, starting on an initiative we’ve never done before could have an opinion that is more believable after a week into the project than the other people on the team.

This also means that for each decision that needs to be made, not all opinions should be weighed equal. We have to look at ourselves and our team members and consider who is most likely to be right, then make the decision fast and learn from the outcomes.

Other opinion-related pitfalls

  1. Saying something like “contrary to popular opinion, my view is X”. We don’t care about popular opinion. Even more, popular opinion is dangerous. We can work with individually expressed, believable opinions but not with popular opinions.

  2. Trying to be non-opinionated. Face it, building a company is by definition an endeavor that is opinionated. Formulating a vision and working towards it means you have an opinion about where the world should evolve towards. Otherwise you’re just building the same mousetrap.

  3. Not challenging the most believable opinion. This might sound contradictory to the above but it’s not. It’s a checks and balances action that makes sure we’re not falling prey to groupthink, or just following the smartest person or the one with the highest paycheck.

Actions you can take

To realize our mission we need bring together a diverse set of people with diverse viewpoints, expertise, contexts and experience. This means when it’s time to make decisions, everyone brings a piece of the puzzle to the table and everyone should be comfortable working with other people’s pieces of the puzzle.

Therefore, what you can do as a team member and what we’re looking for in people we hire is an ability to:

  • Ask “what informs your opinion?” instead of saying “we shouldn’t make decisions based on opinions”

  • Make decisions based on a variety of inputs

  • Weigh the available inputs

  • Know when to invest time in more information and when there is sufficient information available

  • Be open to opinions from others if they are believable

  • Challenge others in case the presented level of information and data behind a decision are below what they would be comfortable with individually, but eventually (dis)agree and commit to optimize for fast decision making