One-Way and Two-Way Doors

Effective decision-making starts with understanding; in the long-term, very, very few things actually matter. The vast majority of the decisions made day-to-day are either minutia or easily reversible and can be made quickly.

However, a small number of things (about 1 in 10) matter a lot (in the long term) and are worthy of serious pondering, discussion, investigation, investment, and decision making. A mentor (Chris Jones) introduced me to the pithy phrase 90% of the decisions you make don’t matter.

Jeff Bezos uses the One-way and Two-Way Doors mental model for the same concept. In the  2015 and 2016 Amazon Shareholder Letters (which are fantastic reads), 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. 

But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible – they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal two-way door decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. These decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.

As organizations get larger, there seems to be a tendency to use the heavy-weight decision-making process on most decisions…The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention.

Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

You can tell a one-way vs. two-way door decision by answering these questions: 

“What if you’re wrong? Can you go back to the previous state at all or go back without serious consequences?”

Examples of one-way door decisions:

  • Selecting a processor architecture for the next generation of Control4 controllers and touch screens. Deciding on the processor and chipset and associated toolchain is not reversible without a complete reset. 
  • Making a go-no-go decision on shipping a new product under development. Once you ship a product to customers, you can’t take it back. If your specification of Minimum Lovable Product (MLP) isn’t lovable enough, or you haven’t fixed the right bugs, and you still launch, you’re screwed. 
  • Hiring a new full-time employee. You might argue that this is a two-way door because you can always fire someone. This is a fallacy as it’s far, far harder to un-hire someone than it is to hire someone, and a bad hire will do irreparable damage to an organization. 

Examples of two-way door decisions:

  • Picking the default background for a UI. As long as the software architecture enables us to change it later (see question 3 below), this is easily reversible with a software update. 
  • Hiring a contractor (with a clear, time-bound statement of work and strong supervision, of course).

Here are some questions leaders should regularly ask:

  1. Are we intentional in identifying which decisions are one-way and which are two-way?
  2. Are we using all tools available to us for driving clarity of thought in making one-way doors? See my blog post on some of my favorite tools here. 
  3. Are we inventing ways to turn one-way door decisions into two-way door decisions? For example, inventing ways to get closer to the continuous integration/deployment (CI/CD) ideal in product development (see the 2nd example of a one-way door above).
  4. Do the right owners have the autonomy they need to make two-way door decisions?
  5. Are we actively looking for and identifying and correcting bad decisions? Do we ask the 5-whys and then engineer something that corrects the underlying error?
  6. Are we applying positive re-enforcement to teams to encourage autonomy and ownership of two-way door decisions?

Relevant Amazon Leadership Principles:

  • Invent and Simplify
  • Are Right, A Lot
  • Deliver Results
  • Think big
  • Ownership

More reading:

1 comment


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