Are the best bosses the ones who put off difficult decisions?
- 19 May 2016
- From the section Business
How good are you at making the right decision quickly?
It has long been the perceived wisdom that a good leader is a decisive one.
That he or she knows their own mind, and is quick to make the correct call.
This is the type of person who is supposed to be in charge, we are told, whether they are leading a business, or government department, or even managing a football team. They get things done.
Yet what if this commonly held opinion is wrong? Would it actually be better to put someone in charge who, if not a ditherer, procrastinates? Someone who puts off coming to a decision?
That's the opinion of business psychologist Prof Adam Grant, who explores the issue in his recent book Originals: How Non-Conformists See The World.
Prof Grant, from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school, says that procrastinating - be it putting off making a decision or setting a project start date - can actually open a company boss's mind to more creative thinking, and lead to a more opportune time to launch a new product.
"Procrastination lets you have time for your ideas to percolate... and new technologies to emerge," he says.
Prof Grant's opinion is that business leaders should "explore new ideas early, but delay the execution of them long enough to give yourself access to unexpected insights".
Or in other words, "be quick to start and slow to finish" a new project.
Prof Grant spoke to Google co-founder Larry Page and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos when researching his book.
He says they both admitted to him that they often delayed decisions until the last possible minute, because, in the words of Prof Grant, they "want all the information on the table, and want to give themselves a lot of time to process that information".
Such an approach may have contributed to the success of both companies, who were able to speed past one-time rivals who had gone to market earlier - Charles Stack Online Bookstore, and former leading social network MySpace.
Not so fast, says Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, and author of more than 65 studies on procrastination.
He says that putting off making decisions can be destructive. "Other people are going to be affected by someone delaying a project, or an assignment," says Prof Ferrari.
He cautions that when some people procrastinate they are in fact delaying tasks to try to shift responsibility away from themselves.
He concludes that if a project or decision is left until the last minute, such is the rush that errors are more common.
While Prof Ferrari cautions against procrastination, Rita McGrath, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, says that firms cannot usually make a correct decision quickly.
"It takes time to make a complex decision," she says.
Her view is that a business leader should mull over a task, studying it from different angles, but then delay its execution until the opportune time.
Mark Zuckerberg's launch of Facebook is a good example of this, according to Prof McGrath.
He leapt into founding Facebook, with little or no money, while still at Harvard. He first tested it at US universities, while studying where one-time rivals such as MySpace and Friendster were failing.
Only when he was happy with how Facebook worked did he open it up to general users, and it went on to take over the world.
Prof Grant says the case of Facebook shows business procrastination at its best. "If you wait rather than rushing in, you can watch consumer taste evolve, and enter [the marketplace] at the right time."
He adds: "The problem with decisiveness is that it's code for acting on the best information available at the time, and basing a decision on your gut, as opposed to maintaining a healthy scepticism.
"Allow unexpected thoughts to influence your decision."
Lee Biggins, founder and managing director of UK jobs website CV-Library, says there is both a time for procrastination and occasions when a quick decision is vital.
"It depends on what the decision is regarding, and the size of the business," he says.
"Whilst some decisions require some careful consideration, others depend on a quick turnaround, especially when you're a smaller player.
"Leaders should learn to trust their gut instinct, but also know when to give themselves space and time.
"There have been many occasions in my career at CV-Library where making a decision quickly has been the sole reason for success - responding ahead of the competition is the best way of putting yourself at the front of the race.
"However, for longer-term decisions, such as how we are expanding the business, or developing key infrastructure, I'll conduct vast amounts of research and take my time."