One of the worst things for any entrepreneur is to deal with a perfectionist. These people are like Kryptonite to Superman when it comes to decision-making because at least in the early stages of a business, absolutely nothing is perfect. It’s chaos. It’s madness. It’s not even very clever half the time, no matter whether we think it is. Perfectionists are just a terrible fit.
If I have learned anything in the insanity of building businesses, it’s that you have to make decisions with a limited amount of information. That may be anathema to an MBA graduate, but it would probably make perfect sense to a military leader. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. You can’t make the perfect decision. Sometimes you just have to go.
The question then, is how much information do you really need to make a decision? The only possible answer is that it depends on your appetite for risk. If it’s high, you don’t need much. If it’s low, you can never have enough. That’s probably obvious.
What’s not obvious is the dividing line between intelligent low-information decision-making and gambling. Gambling, no matter what the movies attempt to depict, is bloody stupid. Which means to me, you’ve got to have a little more intelligence about you before you leap into the unknown. Appetite for risk isn’t the same as willingness to commit financial suicide.
So how much information do you need?
Let’s break it down. Ex-United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was and remains a jerk and there’s little to be learned from him short of a billion cautionary tales. But he did once say something which in his bizarre rhetoric came across as … bizarre … but which is actually surprisingly bright.
He spoke about four things: known knowns, the things you are certain of; known unknowns, the things that you know you don’t have enough information about; unknown knowns, the things that you don’t realise you know until they’re suddenly up in your face, and unknown unknowns, the things you don’t have the faintest idea exist and therefore have the ability to blindside you.
I know. it’s gobbledygook. But bear with me.
Leave out the things you know you’re an expert in and the things you know you don’t know enough about and therefore approach with trepidation. Leave out also the things you don’t realise you know, because they’ll present themselves to you when you’re forced to think a little harder.
The buggers are the things you didn’t even know you needed to know.
Those are the ones that make the difference between gambling and low-information decision-making. The gambler is unwilling to predict that anything unusual might come around the corner. The low-information decision-maker is at least half-primed to accept it. Neither of them is particularly well-equipped to deal with it in advance, because by definition, you can’t be. How can you prepare for something you haven’t even imagined?
There is ample evidence however, that in at least knowing that your greatest plans are probably flawed, you can react intelligently, as long as you’re deep enough and broad enough to be able to apply lateral context. Your most important knowledge is non-specific. What have you seen, heard of, read about, that triggers a linking of dots? If you don’t have that, you’re naked.
Which bring us back to the first guy. Perfectionists don’t have any context beyond the flawed object that is in front of them.
How much information do you need? The truth is, you cannot know. Sometimes you just have to go. Preparation isn’t science. It’s a way of being. That’s probably why so few entrepreneurs actually build businesses that grow.