Decision Making

Know When to Trust Your Gut

Know When to Trust Your Gut

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There are times when you’ve got to stick steadfast to your own ideas and beliefs. Then there are times when that’s the worst thing you can do, when you’re being too narrow-minded and need a broader perspective to make the right call.

The problem is you never know which situation you’re in until after the fact. If you turn out to be right, you’re a visionary. If not, you’re just another guy with a crazy idea and a failed business. Nobody has a crystal ball. Not really.

Take Steve Jobs, for example. He had a unique ability to divine the next big thing. But what made that extraordinary gift so powerful was that he trusted his own focus group of one in spite of what others said. And believe me, there were plenty of pundits who thought it was a terrible idea for Apple to get into the phone business. Likewise for tablets and retail stores.  

On the other hand, applying that same sort of subjective self-belief to his own health didn’t work out so well. Delaying surgery and trying to treat his pancreatic cancer holistically was a tragic decision Jobs would come to regret, according to biographer Walter Isaacson.

That’s why strong opinions and ideals are a double-edged sword – not just for entrepreneurs but for all of us. They’re both strengths and weaknesses. Here are a three stories describing how successful business leaders learn to trust their own abilities without becoming too myopic.

Related: 8 Great Entrepreneurial Success Stories

After legendary ad exec Lee Clow finished pitching the now famous “Think Different” campaign to Apple, Steve Jobs’ initial response was, “This is great, this is really great … but I can’t do this. People already think I’m an egotist, and putting the Apple logo up there with all these geniuses will get me skewered by the press.”

For a while, Clow and his team from Chiat/Day thought they were dead. They’d put all their wood behind that one arrow, that one campaign. Then Jobs shocked everyone by doing a complete 180, saying, “What am I doing? Screw it. It’s the right thing. It’s great. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen highly opinionated executives do exactly the same thing, that sort of in-the-moment “about face.” Just when you think they’ve made up their minds, they seem to flip, just like that. But that’s not really what’s going on. They’re just working through the decision-making process out loud.

And they have the courage to trust their own gut instinct, overrule otherwise reasonable objections, throw caution to the wind, and go for it. That said, when trusted lieutenants present a solid logical argument, those same people have to be open and flexible enough to let go of a strongly held viewpoint.

In the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates was famous for knockdown, drag-out debates that went on for hours, sometimes days. And if you could convince him he was wrong, he would flip to your side of the argument in a heartbeat. Even though he had strong opinions, his motivation was always to do what’s right for the company.

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Likewise, CEO Andy Grove fostered a culture of what he called “constructive confrontation” at Intel. His book “High Output Management” describes “the ideal decision-making process” as starting with “free discussion,” then “clear decision,” and finally “full support.” If the decision turns out to be wrong, the process repeats.

Funny, I think these three legendary entrepreneurs used more or less the same process to make good decisions on behalf of their companies. Here are my five key takeaways:

Have zero pride of ownership. Regardless of who comes up with an idea or whether you were right or wrong, always put the needs of the company and its stakeholders ahead of your own. 

Listen with an open mind. If you’re not willing to challenge the status quo – even your own – you’ll never come up with breakthroughs that disrupt competitive markets. The mechanism is the same. 

Know how much you don’t know. Besides coming across as a jerk, behaving like a know-it-all is bad for business. Have a little humility. Being aware of just how much you don’t know is a sign of wisdom and maturity.

Free debate leads to smart decisions. Constructive conflict is critical to smart decision-making. Suppression of others’ viewpoints before a decision is reached is dysfunctional; so is dissention after a decision is reached … until it’s found to be wrong.  

It takes personal strength and courage to do the right thing. Whether you’re standing tall and taking on the world or admitting you were wrong and risking appearing weak, you’re confronting fear and that takes personal strength and courage.  

Related: Success Does Not Follow a Time Clock