Vaguevoiding: the art of not really making decisions.

Choosing is losing. When you pick one out of 3 options, you forfeit the other 2. That’s how decisions work. Yet in the office, we often see people avoid decisions by being vague. It’s an art form that’s mainly perfected by managers and “business people”.

Let’s say we need a call-to-action on our landing page. Will we break the design by adding a red button front-and-centre? Will we stick to the design guide, playing it safe but risking lower conversion? These are actual business decisions. Pick one, lose all others.

What often happens is this: a committee convenes and decides that the call-to-action should “feature prominently” on the landing page. Their work is done, tick another checkbox.

Here is the problem: somebody will have to take the actual decision when updating the landing page. Notice how they’ve avoided the decision, but did not delegate it to someone else. What typically happens is that a designer will take a guess and pick the red button. When showing the new page during a demo, the committee will most likely complain about breaking the style of the site. Nothing gets done, morale takes a dive.

Why do people vaguevoid?

While everybody seems to be crazy about Lean and Agile, most companies don’t have the mindset. They don’t learn and adapt with short feedback loops. They believe that software needs a clear definition of requirements and that there is something like the complete scope of a project.

From that point of view, deciding becomes dangerous. We can’t know everything upfront, but that’s exactly what they are told to do. If they pick wrong, it’s their fault. So they don’t pick and try to buy time. Vaguevoiding is a cry for help from people stuck in the Waterfall!

What can we do?

As a manager, facilitating decisions is your job. Look at every decision as picking one option out of a discrete set. Don’t keep your options open, limit them to just one. In most cases, you should not make the decision yourself. Delegate it to the right person, but make sure they pick one concrete option and back that decision.

The rest of the team has to try and spot the pattern of vaguevoiding. Your need for a decision is circumvented with a vague answer that is treated like a choice. When that happens: call it out.

“I’m sorry, but we need a clear decision here. Does prominently mean the red button?”

Managers and business people with a requirements mindset have difficulty admitting they cannot know everything upfront. This cognitive dissonance makes them kick the can down the road so it ends up on your driveway. Kick it back. When they finally start making good-enough-for-now decisions, the Lean mindset begins to take hold.

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