The Innovator’s Guide To Fearless Decision-Making

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Make your own decisions, own your own mistakes, ask lots of questions. By Katherine Von Jan (Founder & CEO, RadMatter)

“To get different results, you have to do things differently." Former Colonel of Innovation for the US Air Force, Rolf Smith said it best. I was in my mid-20s when I first heard him say it, and at the time I didn’t realize how powerful his statement was because it embodied my life experience.

I was the girl who always did things differently. I don’t know if I was particularly brave. I just wasn’t aware that other people had rules and expectations for how things should be done. And by following my own path, things always worked out positively beyond expectation.

Founding RadMatter was both a calling and wake-up call. I realized I had been cavalier about previous endeavors, never wanting to fail, but never fearing it either. For the first time I could remember I wanted to know exactly “how things are done” so that I could do everything “right”. I started seeking and following the wisdom of others in Startuplandia.

And here’s the problem. I started to do what was expected, and making decisions based on wisdom that worked for others in another context with another team in another market. The more I succombed to “how things are done” out of fear of failure, the more I started to lose my grounding, and yes, my inner power. I struggled between honoring all those brilliant folks around generously sharing advice, and my internal center screaming, “there is a different way.”

And then came a liberating "a-ha" moment as Rolf’s mantra resurfaced: “To get different results, you have to do things differently.” We at RadMatter are not doing something that has been done before. Others have started businesses, but not this business. How on earth could we follow anyone else’s playbook? If there were a playbook, it wouldn’t be called decision-making. And it wouldn’t require leadership.

Ladies, innovators, leaders, we will only win with conviction. Jobs, Zuck, Pincus, Huffington didn’t have a playbook. Whether they were struggling with it or not, they did things differently. In the moment decisions are made, the answers may not make sense to all the people who want you to do it their way to succeed. It takes courage and conviction to do what you know is right.

Here are 7 keys to bold decision-making with your gut:

  1. Seek diverse advice - Be honest that you are in exploration mode, and talk to every kind of stakeholder related to your quest. Customers, users, subject matter experts, investors, successful entrepreneurs, failed entrepreneurs, authors, journalists, bartenders. Ask and listen, and always give them something appropriate in return.
  2. Find the patterns in the fodder - Take your ego out of it, and let the most important threads emerge. Do it alone, do it with others. Just don’t try to find answers – because you still might not be asking the right question. Notice what is there.
  3. Frame the question - Figure out exactly what you need to know, and what the implications are. What would you do if you had the answer to the question? (Is it worth answering this at all?) Test this with your team.
  4. Ask experts for a reality check - Figure out who the top 3 people are you’d like to have answer the question. If you can’t get those people, try finding others with a similar DNA. Share your question, the implications, and any of the answers that seemed to emerge already.
  5. Trust your gut - You know the answer even if you don’t want to admit it. Write down your decision as if it doesn’t matter. (It’s like hitting save instead of send on that email you wrote in haste.)
  6. Practice communicating your decision. Imagine you are talking to your customers and your team – your ultimate stakeholders. Share your decision in 50 emotions. Say it with sadness, joy, fear, anger, delight... Does it feel authentic? Say it so many ways, that the only thing you feel at the end is confident that no matter how you say it, it’s right.
  7. Implement your decision - Own your success and your failure. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, because the only mistake you can make is not actually making a decision.

"There is a great reconciliation happening for female leaders - and leadership in general," shares Lorraine Stomski, Partner and Leadership Services Leader at Aon Hewitt. "Women leaders are realizing that it is their own expectations and standards which need to be met - not arbitrary, stale definitions of success.”

So, I remind myself that when the stakes are really high, if we really care, and failure is not an option, that is the moment when we must take the leap of faith, and go with gut. (I am not just talking about CEOs and founders – leadership happens every day at every level.)

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Katherine von Jan is Founder and CEO of RadMatter, a talent development community where students tackle challenges to discover and win career opportunities. A benevolent troublemaker and creative leader, Katherine’s work spans two decades in the F500 and entrepreneurship identifying and advancing bold opportunities for the future of cities, education, talent and work. Katherine’s passion is helping people unlock their fullest potential. Follow her on Twitter at @kvonjan.