Monday, July 25, 2011

Making big decisions

Making big decisions – How I decided to leave Google

This is part 1 of a 6 part series by Mark Capps on his experiences of leaving Google to start up a new online retail company.
I've always wanted to start my own company. However I’ve struggled to actually make the decision and do it, instead I’ve continue to work for various large companies. Recently, I made what I hope will be one of my best life decisions: I left the scale and certainty of one of the world’s most amazing companies (Google) to become an entrepreneur, starting something new and uncertain in online retailing. The decision was hard because both staying and leaving had many compelling advantages. A friend prompted me to realise my decision making approach was hindering, not helping. Here’s what I learned about making decision:
Pros and Cons - my old approach
My go-to decision making approach used to be this - maybe it sounds familiar! I'd write down pros and cons in 2 columns. Then I'd assign each a score. Finally, I'd add up the scores to see if the pros or cons won. Here's an example of deciding whether to drive, or take a taxi, for a night out with friends:
Pros of driving:
- Forces me not to drink alcohol; I'll be fresh tomorrow [5]
- Avoids the difficulty of finding a taxi at midnight [10]
Cons of driving:
- The bar has my favourite beer - I won’t be able to drink it [5]
- Having to find parking is a nightmare [5]
It’s reasonably easy to assign scores - I’ve put mine in square brackets and the pros get it with 15 points to 10, so I’ll drive. Assigning the relative scores was simple as it’s mostly an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s easy to decide that finding a taxi is twice as hard as finding a parking space. Now let's try my rather more complicated career decision - whether to leave Google and become an entrepreneur:
Pros of becoming an online retail entrepreneur:
- Fulfill a life ambition and create something new
- Potentially larger financial upside
- Certainty of staying in Australia for a few more years
Cons of becoming an online retail entrepreneur:
- 'Safety net' of a large company replaced with uncertainty
- Harder to go and live for a few years in Asia
- No salary
This is much harder - how do you weigh up the pro of fulfilling a life ambition with the con of no salary? Or the benefit of staying in Australia vs the excitement of working in Asia? I found it impossible to create a consistent scoring system and come a decision. The process didn't work, it lead to endless circling of the issues.
Diagnosis - my new approach
I was explaining the problem to my friend Annie Baxter, and she shared a fantastic insight she had read. The pros and cons method works for smaller decisions, but for bigger decisions a diagnostic approach may be better. Instead of listing pros and cons, you ask individual questions one at a time. If the answer is 'yes' you move on. If it's 'no' you stop.
I tried this for my career decision and the effect was amazing:
- Does the idea make economic sense (Yes – analysis looks good)
- Do I want to work with these people (Yes – they have tremendous skills, we get on well)
- Do I want to live in Australia for a few more years (Yes – the economy has strengths, the sailing is awesome)
And so on.
What's different about this approach is that you're making clear, individual decisions one at a time. You can narrow your thinking, do the research, make a decision and move on. It eliminates trying to compare completely different concepts.
Pros & cons vs diagnosis
With this new approach I cut through my indecision. The pros and cons helped me identify areas to question, but it was the diagnostic approach that helped me break the circling and decide how to act. I certainly won't stop using the pros and cons approach for smaller decisions, however for bigger decisions I now use the diagnosis method.
What methods have you found effective for making really important or complex decisions?
Image credit for Scales


  1. Mark,

    Really interesting insight. I too found pros and cons made radical decisions difficult. You might remember back in 2003 I was torn in a similar between film school and business school. Both would have been fascinating and positive life choices, but one provided satisfaction for my creative needs, the other financial security.
    Rather than flowcharting the choices like you did, my technique then and since has been to boil it down to which of the criteria is most important to me. So rather than adding up scores from pros v cons, I look at the one with the highest score, and pick that one. (finding a taxi at midnight, in your example)
    This method doesn't make the decision-making process any easier, but it does favour more radical choices, rather than balancing the seesaw.

  2. So, in short, what you're saying is that you left Google because of Annie Baxter.

  3. Rick - I like it! My only concern would be that by focussing on just one aspect, you potentially ignore downsides. I guess this is how it favours the more radical choice.

    Nikolai - I guess so! :-)