The Key to Success in Business

David Slayden, Executive Director and Founder of BDW
Photograph by Kristin Gladney

The Entrepreneur Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question “When making a tough business decision, how do you know when to trust your gut?” is written by David Slayden, executive director of BDW.

You should always trust your gut. Your gut decisions come from a combination of accumulated hard knowledge and intuition.

If you’re in the position to make a tough business decision, that at least suggests that you’ve earned that position and/or that there isn’t anyone else who could make that decision. And you are in a leadership role because you understand that all decisions have consequences—not-so-tough ones as well as tough ones—and you’re willing to live with those consequences, personally and professionally. It comes with the territory.

There’s a steady accumulation of scientific research that points to a lack of dichotomy between logic and intuition in thinking, acting, and making decisions. Think of it as the triumph of yes/and over either/or. Much of this research follows from the work of Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. It’s summarized in his 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, which explains the two systems that drive the way we think: One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; the other is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

See also: How Ignoring Your Instincts Can Lead to Missed Opportunities

My argument for trusting your gut is that it’s faster to do that, and faster is better suited for the rapidly changing, globally connected idea economy that we all live and work in now. Learning to do that well is key to success. It requires an iterative, adaptive mindset that is comfortable with uncertainty because it looks at success as a temporary condition.

The growth of the idea economy has changed how we look at process and decision-making. Failure has moved from its position at the end of a failed linear process to an iterative process. Prior to the dot-com collapse, one common bit of advice was this: “Just make a decision, any decision. If it’s wrong, you’ll find out fast.” That was then, a time characterized by abundant funding, shaky or non-existent business plans, and unlimited possibilities. And yes, there was a collapse, but we’ve all moved on.

Over a decade later, an echoing mantra in tech startups is “fail fast.” David Brown, cofounder of TechStars, explains what this often misused phrase means: “Fail fast isn’t about the big issues, it’s about the little ones. It’s an approach to running a company or developing a product that embraces lots of little experiments with the idea that some will work and grow and others will fail and die.”


Brown expands on why and when this practice works: “Not sure if your product should require users to give a lot of information before starting to use it? One approach would be to talk to a lot of people, get all the different points of view, assess their opinions, decide what to do, schedule it on the product roadmap, develop and test it, and then release it. Or you could just get something out there and if it doesn’t work, fail fast, pivot, and try something else.”

The quick comparison here is between waterfall and agile methodologies in product development. Much of our common sense approach to decision making comes from waterfall—and the world waterfall inhabits is sequential, logical, familiar, and well-suited to an economy fueled by manufacturing and construction. That world now co-exists with a much less predictive world, a world fueled by an idea economy characterized by innovation through disruption. Fast trumps certainty in the 21st-century world of constant and rapid change.

Change has always been a constant, but it is more rapid now—and that won’t change. You can count on it. Go with your gut. It’s faster, you’ll feel better, and will probably be right.

David Slayden is the executive director of BDW, a designer-founder accelerator focused on innovation through the integration of design, tech, and strategy.

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