How a great idea got stuck in meetings

Reduce analysis paralysis by making reversible decisions

Jurriaan Kamer
9 min readJan 15, 2024

Below is an excerpt from my new bookUnblock: Clear the Way for Results and Develop a Thriving Organization.” Digital early access is available now.
The piece starts with a short fictional story. Part 2 can be read here: “Make better decisions using consent, not consensus.

Veronica manages Magajima Amsterdam, an Asian restaurant that is part of an international chain with over 50 locations across Europe. Her restaurant sits near the central train station. This location was typical for Migajima. Most restaurants are in high-traffic areas, like airports and rest stops along the highway. Because of this, guests usually don’t want to spend more than an hour there. However, people pick Magajima because the experience is closer to a sit-down restaurant than a fast food chain.

The menu is the same across all restaurants and contains about 30 dishes, including different curries, dumplings, sushi, teppanyaki, and noodles. Every quarter, the team at headquarters sets and distributes the new menu. Veronica noticed many people were unfamiliar with the Asian dishes and often asked about what kind of food it was. For example, many people didn’t understand the difference between “ramen,” “soba,” or “udon” noodles and often asked the waiters to explain. Many guests struggled to make their choice, which cost her serving staff time.

For years, Veronica wanted to go on holiday to Japan. She had heard great stories about the fantastic hospitality and cuisine and was eager to experience it firsthand. Last month, Veronica finally took the trip. One thing she immediately noticed was how restaurants presented their menu. Some places displayed mockups of actual dishes outside the restaurant. And almost everywhere, the menu contained numerous high-quality photos of the dishes. Even though Veronica couldn’t read or speak a word of Japanese, she had no problem ordering her food because she saw exactly what she would be getting.

Many saw this as an opportunity for Magajima. If the menus were much more visual, surely people would have fewer problems ordering food. And it would decrease the time spent ordering and free servers from answering questions. She decided to bring this up as a topic in her next 1:1 meeting with Jill, the Head of Restaurant Operations.

Jill immediately liked the idea. She promised to bring this to Rob, the Head of Marketing, whose team is responsible for designing the menus. Three weeks later, Jill can get on the calendar with Rob. After Jill lays out the idea, Rob says: “I love it! However, it would radically increase the printing costs for all our restaurants. Since you and I don’t have the budget, we’ll need to bring this decision to the senior leadership meeting.”

Jill and Rob are part of the senior leadership team, but they had to convince the other leaders to get the additional budget. They knew it would require them to bring a well-crafted, detailed proposal. Jill asked the operations manager to estimate the cost of a menu with more pages and full-color photos. Rob asked one of their graphic designers to make a few slides with examples of the new menu. He then had several meetings with the design team to improve the initial design.

A month later, Jill and Rob have another meeting to finalize their proposal. They discuss the design and cost estimations. They also think through what might happen at the senior leadership meeting. Jill said: “The group will surely be concerned by the return on investment of this decision. Let’s add some calculations of how the higher printing cost will be gained back by increased serving capacity since people spend less time ordering.”

Jill requests the secretary of the senior leadership team to find an available moment to discuss this topic. Six weeks later, they can fill an empty slot on the agenda.

At the meeting, they present their proposal. The first person to respond was the CFO: “I’m sorry, but the ROI calculation is weak. You have based the cost increase on facts, but the upside on the ‘gut feel’ of one restaurant manager. In our current process, we don’t measure the time customers take to order their food or the number of questions they ask the waiters, so we can’t know if the ROI is positive or negative.” The CEO quickly agrees and asks: “Could you put some measurements in place and bring this back to us?” Jill hesitantly nods and sighs.

After the meeting, Jill immediately calls Veronica apologetically: “I’m sorry, Veronica. Rob and I think your idea is great, but the senior leadership team is not yet convinced it is the right thing to do. They first asked us to measure the current ordering time and waiter questions to calculate the ROI. Would you be willing to start measuring that in your restaurant?”

Veronica’s response was not at all what Jill expected. She said, “Well, I have some data for you! It’s been three months since I brought up the topic with you. And since I didn’t hear back, I decided not to wait. I’ve let a local designer make a page with photos of all the noodle dishes we give our guests in addition to our normal menu. We’ve been using it in the last month and have seen a 20% increase in people picking the food that is visually shown. The serving staff also noticed people were asking fewer questions. Next month, I will ask the designer to make a visual version of all of our dishes to see what that brings us.”

Risk avoidance is costly

What happened at Magajima is not uncommon. The decision quickly rose to the organization’s top because of a lack of mandate lower down. Since time with the senior leaders is scarce and putting things in front of them can be ‘scary,’ there is a desire to ‘get it right the first time. More preparation is deemed necessary, more people get involved, and many meetings are planned to polish the proposal to perfection.

When decisions rise to the organization’s top, they also tend to become bigger. We wouldn’t want to bother the senior leaders with small stuff, would we? In the case of the story, the proposal was to change all menus of all restaurants at once, which bears a significant risk and cost. Therefore, the senior leadership team didn’t want to make the wrong decision, so they logically asked for more data before they felt comfortable to act.

As a leader, when uncertainty is high, you try to remove as much uncertainty as possible — it is only human to not want to be wrong. We’re taught to weigh all the options to find the perfect solution. However, risk avoidance comes at a cost. One cost type is the time and energy it takes to acquire the information to reduce uncertainty — meetings, measurements, data gathering, reporting about results, etc. Time that you can better spend on taking the first steps.

The other type is the cost of ‘dragging your feet.’ The opportunity costs of NOT making a decision. The costs of NOT innovating. If it takes six months to change the menu, you’re implicitly accepting the cost of six more months of unimproved performance.

So when should we act fast, take intelligent risks, and when should we act more slowly and deliberately? It helps to distinguish between reversible and irreversible decisions — an idea coined by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos. (Note: Even though his management philosophy is inspiring, companies shouldn’t follow his example of paying extremely low wages and providing terrible working conditions.)

In a letter to shareowners, he wrote: “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.”

He proposes to decide quickly when the consequences are reversible. Because if you’ve made a suboptimal reversible decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for long. You can simply reopen the door and go back through.

How to handle different types of decisions

Imagine you go to the grocery store to buy milk. If your favorite brand is sold out, you have many alternatives to choose from. It wouldn’t make sense to spend hours researching which would be the best option. You just pick one and go home. If you dislike what you bought, you will have lost some time and money, but you can easily go back and buy something else. You won’t be stuck for long with the choice you make.

But now, imagine you’re considering moving to another country. You’ll have to quit your job, sell your house, leave your friends behind, and find new ones at your destination. Such a decision is one with a much higher impact. Strictly speaking, this is a reversible choice. But the cost of undoing the decision is much higher. So, compared to buying milk, you should spend more time researching the decision.

Decisions are never fully reversible or irreversible. It is a spectrum. Spend little effort deciding if a decision is cheap and easy to undo. If it is costly and difficult to undo, be more careful.

If the cost of doing it wrong is high and the time spent on deciding is worth it, then put in the effort to try to make the right choice. Slow down the decision-making process. Do research to explore possible scenarios, quantify risks, and reduce uncertainty. Then, think deeply and decide carefully.

But even if a decision is irreversible, consider the negative consequences of doing it wrong. If those are acceptable, you can still make the decision quickly.

After making a decision, set a reminder to check the outcome at a future date. Then, correct the course based on what you’ve learned from the result.

Moves to try with your team

To accelerate decision-making, we should become comfortable with making decisions with incomplete information. Jeff Bezos said, “Most decisions should probably be made with around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.”

If your team feels uncomfortable making a decision when there is incomplete information, try one of these questions:

  • This is a reversible decision, where we can return to the drawing board and try something else if it fails. Making the wrong decision seems manageable. So what can we decide now?
  • Is spending time and money finding more information and delaying the decision worth it?
  • We seem very passionate about making the right choice; what is the worst thing that can happen if we get it wrong?

It may also help to highlight that, in many cases, the chances of making the right choice without trying something first are low.

For example, launching a new app won’t likely immediately drive the outcome you were initially looking for. You probably need to keep iterating, tweaking, and experimenting until you reach the desired result. In those cases, the only way to know what works is to put something out there, learn from what happens, and then course-correct it.

If iteration seems important, try these questions:

  • Should we decide on all this, or can we try some of it first?
  • What can we say yes to quickly that allows us to learn something if this is the right direction?
  • How can we make the decision smaller to feel comfortable acting on it now?

When you’ve successfully accelerated the decision-making process for some decisions, ask the team to reflect on their progress in decision-making and estimate how much time they saved. Doing this will help solidify the behavior change.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from my new bookUnblock: Clear the Way for Results and Develop a Thriving Organization.

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Jurriaan Kamer

Org design & transformation | Author of ‘Formula X’ | Speaker | Future of Work