Carry on or Change Course? How to Decide Your Best Next Action

best next action

Note: This post pulls from Done Right, a leadership book from Workfront CEO Alex Shootman.

“Just three guys on Valentine's Day that had nothing to do.”

That’s how Steven Chen described the decision he took with his friends, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, to launch a video dating website on February 14, 2005.

They started with high hopes of earning their fortune from brokering happy matches online. But the first week passed without a single video being uploaded. Hastily, they decided to change course. Confident in their underlying technology, they dropped the video dating idea and decided to allow anyone to upload videos about anything. Karim kicked it off with an awkward 18-second video about a trip to San Diego Zoo.

Romance may have died, but YouTube was born.

Hindsight is one of the world’s most abundant commodities; foresight is far rarer. So, what would you have done in Chen, Hurley and Karim’s shoes? Would you have made the same quick pivot?

Sure, the risks and costs of getting the decision wrong are smaller one week into the life of a start-up than at more established moment. But the story of YouTube captures a classic dilemma that every leader will face at some point: how do you know when it’s right to change course? How do you know what direction to take? How do you decide your best next action — the best option to get things done right?

Go/No-Go Decision Making

The Prussian military commander Helmuth van Moltke once said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” That truism hasn’t deterred military commanders ever since from trying to plan how they would overcome every conceivable obstacle to victory on the field of battle. Typically, they’ve figured out decision-making rules — rules that business leaders can learn from.

hermulth moltke

Just ask US Navy Seal Mark McGinnis how his teams decide whether to continue or abort a mission, and he’ll explain the concept of go/no-go decision making.

Commander McGinnis has served his country with distinction from the early 1990s on operations around the world. He explains that in the cool of the planning room, the team identifies the criteria to complete their mission: the bare minimum of tools, expertise, timing, and support. In the theater of operation, if one of those elements is compromised, lost, or proves insufficient, anyone in a leadership role on the mission can then make a call to continue, change course, or abort.

“We bake go/no-go criteria into everything we do,” says Mark.

So, leaders need to ask: Can you still reach your hoped-for business goal with the team, tools, and resources in the time you had planned and in the context of the market terrain you face? By asking this question, a complex problem is stripped back to a clear binary choice: yes, or no.

The Compass-Point Question

Let’s imagine that you’ve reached a go/no-go decision point. You know you can’t reach your goal by following the original path. So how do you know which direction to take?

One essential item in your leadership toolkit should be a compass-point question: “If we do this, will it take us closer towards our goal?” That could play out in different ways depending on your strategic goal:

At Workfront our compass-point question is, “Will it allow us to create and keep customers?” I’ve always found that a compass-point question can be a quick way to focus attention on the strategic end-goal that we’re all trying to achieve. It gives the team a way to debate options and recommend a course of action that isn’t based on personalities or pay grades — just the right way to reach the goal.

Best Next Action

There’s a final element to our decision-making framework: finding your best next action. Go/no-go criteria and compass-point questions are about big  stop-change issues. Day-to-day, there’s a couple of questions that can help ensure that the right tactical decisions are made — the smaller, regular decisions about task priority, for example.

Asking these two simple questions will help guide your team’s tactical decisions as they push towards the end goal.

Never Hesitate to Change Course

The idea of a business changing course was often taken as a badge of strategic failure before the concept of the “pivot” (coined by the entrepreneur and blogger Eric Ries in 2011) became part of Silicon Valley start-up culture. Truth is, I’ve seldom seen successful projects hit their objective by dashing full tilt in a straight line. There’s always been a zig-zag on the journey. But to zig-zag, you and your team must be watchful for signs that you need to take an alternative path. The decision-making frameworks discussed in this post — go/no-go criteria, compass-point questions, and best next actions — will help you make the right decisions at the right time.

Great leaders embrace change and are vigilant for it. So, hold the old Turkish Proverb close: “No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.”

Turkish proverb