Making decisions – One-way and two-way doors

This week I wanted to share a thought on decision making. We face many decisions in these ultra-dynamic times. Many of them might seem “above our pay grade,” or we might be hesitant because we don’t have all the data we would love to have in an ideal world, or we are worried because we cannot find the time to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t.’

While we don’t want to make random decisions, shooting from the hip, these times require swift decisions and actions. We need to avoid becoming a ‘deer in the headlights,’ freezing because we are overwhelmed by the decisions we are confronted with.

A way to reduce our angst of fast-paced high-judgment decisions is to apply the concept of one-way versus two-way doors. This framework is a key (and well-published) principle that Amazon Executives and employees apply when confronted with high-impact decisions in environments of incomplete data (i.e. every day). The idea is to analyze every decision as to whether it is a one-way or a two-way door.

One-way doors – These decisions and their impacts are irreversible. Once you made the decision, you cannot easily go back, and major harm will be done if you have to. On those decisions, you want to do as much investigation and scenario planning as you can possibly afford. A big system upgrade or platform switch might be one example of such decisions. Once switched, it will be costly to go back, and hence we need to ensure thorough testing.

Two-way doors – The majority of decisions are actually two-way doors. If you make a mistake, you can go back without major damage, or you simply tweak what you do to account for the miss. For a two-way door decision, you want to avoid getting into analysis-paralysis. Once you have a pretty good understanding, you need to stop ruminating and start trying. Risk can be limited through smaller pilots and simple tests, but you want to rather get real-world data than spend too much time in theoretical analysis. If things turn out differently than expected, you adjust your plan and try again. Experimentation, short learning cycles, and agile adjustments are the name of the game. Making process changes or trying out new features are perfect examples for two-way doors. If you learn that something doesn’t work, you can revert back or keep iterating until you achieve the desired outcome.

In almost all cases, it’s better to try and learn than to do nothing. Some decisions are one-way doors, but by far not all – understand which one is which.

Did you like this post? Want to read more?

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Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
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2 thoughts on “Making decisions – One-way and two-way doors

  1. Ash

    Great piece Ulrike and Alfons. Totally agree with all of this. The world is full of too many two way decisions taken treated as one way ones and not enough getting out of the building to test hypotheses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alfons Staerk

      Thank you Ash! Analysis-paralysis – most times we are just to afraid to make a mistake and learn from it. Great to hear from you and thank you for your comment.


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