Four ways to make decisions in uncertain times

What's the difference between a data analyst and a football referee? None. You both have to make tough decisions in times of uncertainty.

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Thibaut Collette

November 8, 2022 · 4 min read

Referee helping kid football player on field

We build Husprey so companies can make more decisions based on data. The truth is, in uncertain times, data points you can trust are scarce while decisions need to be made.

A few years back, I was a football referee. (I meant ⚽ sorry US friends). There was this saying that was repeated over and over:

Expect the unexpected.

The idea behind is that all games are different. When you're entering a new game you don't know what will happen. You will face this uncertainty as soon as you arrive in the stadium and until you leave.

To limit the impact of the uncertainty on your performance, the only thing that you can do is to prepare.

Preparation is a mix of training and repetition. Training and repetition will help you read the room better and make better decisions. Reading the room is actually a synonym of gathering data points and comparing them to previous situations. Collected data points might be more qualitative (customer interviews, market feedback, ...) than quantitative, yet they will help make the right (best?) decisions.

This is the same for Business decisions. Expect the unexpected. Prepare for the uncertainty and embrace it.

What is uncertainty?

Uncertainty can be defined as...

....the lack of certainty. Joke aside, this is a "state of limited knowledge where it is impossible to exactly describe the existing state, a future outcome, or more than one possible outcome" [1]. In this state, you cannot be sure that a specific action/input will have the expected results/output.

Uncertainty is not variability.

Variability means that there are various identified probabilities that the output will be X, Y or Z. On the other hand, uncertainty can acknowledge the reality of those probabilities but it's nearly impossible to quantify them.

Uncertainty is not risk.

Risk is actually a subset of the uncertainty when the results/output will have a negative impact. You can have a high certainty of a small negative impact OR a high uncertainty of a big negative impact. That being said uncertainty always includes some risk.

Tips to navigate uncertainty

Uncertainty happened before. First, your company already lived through it (or if it's a brand new start up then you came for the uncertainty 🤓)

Here are sometips that you can use to help you.

1. Remember your company's purpose

This purpose, the why, of your company will help make sure all decisions are aligned. It is the one thing that can be considered stable. It is the lighthouse that will help navigate the fog.

2. Do not wait for data points that you won't trust

This is very important.

You might want to gather as much data as possible to help make the right decisions. But during uncertain times, it can be challenging to interpret and trust data. Are declining sales a market or product signal?

If you gather more data about your sales pipeline, will you end up trusting this data and will it help you make the decision? It does not mean forgetting about data pure and simple.

It means focusing on data you trust and already use.

3. Prefer reversible decisions

This was famously shared by Jeff Bezos in a shareholder letter in 1997:

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible -- one-way doors -- and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don't like what you see on the other side, you can't get back to where you were before.

But most decisions aren't like that -- they are changeable, reversible -- they're two-way doors. If you've made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don't have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through.

The exact definition of uncertainty is that you might make the wrong decisions. So be it. Make them so you can easily reverse them if (when?) it occurs that it does not bring the expected outcome*. Focus on small bets, that will bring you more information and will guide you towards the right direction.

*It does not mean calling back employees a few days after you fire them without enough thinking. Twitter (🥁) link.

4. Act swiftly

Time to decision is critical. The faster you move, the more options you have. The faster you move, the faster you will have information for reversing the decision or starting the next bet. It's easy to say but sometimes, risks might freeze decision making. Again, preparing for the fact that you'll face uncertainty is part of the process and will help you.

To end with

Do not misinterpret what I am saying.

You should rely on data as much as possible in uncertain times. However, you'll have to be careful and be extra rigorous on the context, the methodology, the data points you pick when you share insights and make decisions.

Husprey will help you relying on data. If you haven't signed up yet, you can here. Our free trial will give you two weeks to enjoy all the features!

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