How You Make Big Decisions When No Deadline Looms

Sometimes waiting is fun, like that interval between when you decide to go on vacation and when you actually go. The planning that takes place in that interval can be as great as the trip. Six of us (sons and daughters-in-law) are going to the Amalfi Coast on the Mediterranean in a few weeks. Here are some pictures I took on our last trip to Italy.

Most of the time, though, waiting is just irritating, like waiting in the line to renew your driver’s license or sitting in traffic.

Smart agency owners know how long things take and are always planning ahead. They are usually really good about planning for one of those decisions, anyway, and that’s their facility. It’s a huge commitment, for one thing, plus blowing that decision will be impossible to hide. If they don’t think ahead, the team will work standing up, because there’s no place to sit down, and they’ll do it in the parking lot.

Contrast that with positioning decisions, though, and the consequences are more insidious but less obvious. Everyone will still have a place to do their work, but few of them will notice margins slipping, less effectiveness for clients, and so on. You can put off a decision about your positioning and life will go on.

Principals get very introspective around facility decisions but make a decision anyway because there’s a deadline. They waffle around positioning decisions because they are hard to make, yes, but mainly because there is no deadline. When the landing gear wouldn’t fold back into the fuselage one time after taking off from BNA, I still had five hours of fuel to figure it out; when I lost an engine over Midland, MI, I had about eight minutes of glide time to find a place to land and there wasn’t any time to waffle.

There are other areas where you do a passable job of making decisions, like hiring the right person. Usually you think carefully about it and plan accordingly. You socialize the decision and spread the word within your networks. You’re patient during the testing and screening phases, and you’ve also gotten better at incorporating new employees well. (The exception is hiring that first person with big agency experience.)

Where you really struggle is making big, important decisions about your future where there is no external deadline. Positioning comes to mind, especially, because of these three reasons:

  • You’re always changing it. Nothing has killed your positioning more than PowerPoint because now you’re crafting a positioning for “this pitch” rather than for the $20,000 neon sign out front.
  • You agonize over the long-term implications. “What if I don’t get this right?” You’re inside the jar and can’t see your own label.
  • You aren’t patient about how long it takes for positioning decisions to actually bear fruit.*

*This is what I want to draw your attention to, and point you again to the illustration above. If everything goes perfectly, it will take at least eighteen months (and more than likely a few years) for your positioning decisions to bear fruit. The process will typically unfold like this:

  1. Craft the positioning with an advisor. This is something you must work with an advisor for. There are about a half dozen of us who really know what we’re doing in positioning, and doing this on your own is like defending yourself in a murder trial. The end result should be a simple, 8–20 word statement that clearly defines a compelling positioning that’s not interchangeable with too many other firms. My process is a New Business Audit, either alone or as part of a larger program.
  2. Change the website’s message and CTAs in the context of that new positioning.
  3. Decide on the right lead generation activities, landing on four or five that fit your personality and focus. It’s important to get started on these right away. Otherwise, financial pressure will force unhealthy compromise.
  4. Shape the service offerings. This will almost always start with some sort of diagnostic that you’d apply to each new client first. From there, expect three or four different paths that a client relationship might take.

Again, in a perfect world, it will still require an average of 3–4 months before landing that first right-fit client.

So if it’s going to take several years to see all the benefits, shouldn’t you get started in the next few months? You’re not likely to make the wrong one. You don’t need more information as much as perhaps a little clarity and a lot of courage.

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