Last year, I went through several rounds of interviews at various companies before landing at Zapier. Since my primary role day-to-day is surrounding people leadership, I’m often asked about decision making, specifically when decisions don’t go well.
The question typically goes something like this:
Can you tell me about a time when you made a decision your team didn’t agree with? How did you resolve the situation?
Answer: Yes, I can!
I won’t go into the details, but difficult conversations were had and tears were shed over Zoom.
I have several takeaways from that situation in particular. The biggest takeaway led to this idea of “decision breadcrumbs.” It’s one way to prevent decision scenarios from going sideways.
Most Decisions Aren’t Complete 180’s
We’ve all heard the famous stories of companies making a complete change of course to save their business.
- A gaming company (Tiny Speck) created a game called “Glitch,” which failed to find traction after three years. The company pivoted and eventually became known as Slack.
- Twitter was originally a podcasting platform before pivoting to the tech giant it eventually became.
- Instagram originated from an app originally called Burbn (which I still think is a fantastic name).
We’ve both heard the stories.
Their back is up against the wall. The founder/CEO makes a seemingly wild decision that seems harebrained but turns out to save the company, and they ride off into the sunset as a hero.
Most decisions aren’t like that. Or, even if you do find yourself making a huge pivot that your team isn’t expecting, you likely made many smaller decisions along the way. You just didn’t vocalize them to your team.
Teammates Are Missing the Context
In his book Originals, Adam Grant shares this beautiful analogy that helps to illustrate why we so often fail to provide the required context behind decisions:
You know the lyrics and the melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it’s no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience that’s listening to it for the first time…[it’s] already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them.Adam Grant, Originals
The issue isn’t typically the decision. We might have all the reasons in the world to shutdown a project after 6 months of hard work or launch a new feature to users when we know it isn’t 100% perfect.
We’re making the decision with context that isn’t shared with the team. That’s the issue.
In the example I alluded to at the beginning, that’s certainly what happened. The team was missing several key elements of context. I failed to communicate that context because it was so obvious to me.
Use Breadcrumbs to Communicate Context
The solution is to communicate context early and often, not just at major inflection points. Hence, the term “breadcrumbs.”
You make a dozen smaller decisions on a weekly basis that roll up into a seemingly larger decision. You’ll have a lot more alignment if you communicate the smaller decisions as you make them.
Here are some major context elements I try to hit regularly for any project.
What does “Done” look like? There’s a major difference between “Ship project X” and “Ship project X followed by four weeks of support and addressing outstanding issues.” Be clear about the end state.
Why is this important? Why did we prioritize this over something else?
What tradeoffs are we willing to make? This might involve shifting resources from one project to another or even shutting down one entirely (even one that’s “successful”!). Or, what if we have to compromise on some fundamental part of the company value structure to make sure this is achieved? What happens then?
What’s the timeline? If your team thinks the deadline is movable but you’re committed, that needs to be communicated upfront.
When are the decision cutoffs? If things aren’t headed the right direction, when will we reevaluate? If we haven’t hit revenue X by Y, what happens?