Don’t donkey with decisions

Indecision can be any given organisation or individual’s downfall

Updated - October 29, 2018 03:13 pm IST

Published - October 29, 2018 03:12 pm IST

In philosophy, there is a concept called Buridan’s ass. Buridan’s ass is a hypothetical donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty, which is standing precisely midway between a bale of hay and a bucket of water. One assumes that the donkey would have ordinarily decided whether to choose between the hay or the water, based on whether it was more hungry or more thirsty, and if it was equally so, it would choose between the hay and the water, based on which of the two was closer. Given these assumptions, the donkey is now unable to make any rational decision about choosing hay or water, and therefore will stay rooted to the spot and die of both hunger and thirst.

The name is a reference to the 14th-Century French philosopher Jean Buridan, who had said, “Should two courses be judged equal, then the will cannot break the deadlock, all it can do is to suspend judgement until the circumstances change, and the right course of action is clear.” As an idea, it predates Buridan by many centuries though, going all the way back to Aristotle, who in 350 BC had pointed out the absurdity of the idea that “a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.”

Over the years, I have seen many people in a corporate set-up too, who are a lot like the hypothetical Buridan’s ass when it comes to decision-making. When placed in a situation where they need to choose between multiple options and the right option is not all that evident, they just refuse to decide. Over the years, they develop various ways in which they can avoid taking a decision. They pass the buck up the hierarchy. Or they call for a meeting in the hope that either someone else takes a decision or as such meetings often do, obfuscate the matter even further.

In large companies, the presence of Buridan’s asses does not hurt the organisation all that much. In fact, a lot of companies even make it easy for Buridan’s asses to thrive in the middle and lower levels of management, because they like decision-making to be concentrated at the top. But in a startup, every employee needs to be good at making decisions, and making them quickly. Even if a small percentage of the employees are like Buridan’s donkey, the growth of the company will very quickly stagnate.

Entrepreneurs, almost as a rule, are those who take calls quickly. Even when two options look equally good or equally bad, they toss a coin, and go ahead with one of the options. They are also good at backtracking and making a different call equally quickly, if they realise that their previous decision was bad. And as the startups they have founded grow, they should take care that they do not create a working environment that allows Buridan’s asses to thrive. If they spot one, they must quickly give such an ass a kick on the rear.

The author heads product at a mid-sized startup in the real estate space

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