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Reversible Decisions By Alec Hill

One-Way vs. Two-Way Door Decisions

When the chair of my church’s board asked: “Is this a one-way or a two-way door decision?” my ears perked up.

Asking him to explain the concept, he replied that his employer – Amazon – always uses this language. He defined the terms as follows:

  • One-way doors are decisions that are very costly to reverse. Think airport security exits. These include firing someone, investing heavily in IT architecture, and buying property. On a personal level, choices such as adopting a child, getting divorced, and selecting a cancer treatment option are all one-way doors.  
  • Two-way doors are decisions that can be easily reversed. These include testing a donor strategy, hiring a vendor, and establishing an office hours policy. Away from work, choices such as switching gyms, buying a car, and registering in an online graduate program all fit in this category.

Why is this distinction important? Because not all decisions are equal. Either we spend too little time analyzing one-way doors or too much on two-way doors.   

The Logic of One-Way Doors

Since one-way door decisions are highly consequential, they require significant time. This includes thoroughly assessing missional congruence, extensive data collection, and financial impact analysis.

I’m amazed by how glibly some nonprofits make significant decisions. Proposals are rushed to gain foundation funding without asking questions about mission drift. Whole new lines of services are added without detailed analysis. Properties are purchased without discussion of long-term implications.

One-way decisions deserve methodical treatment. Due diligence shouldn’t be rushed.

Overthinking Two-Way Door Decisions

By my estimate, 75% of organizational decisions are two-way doors.

That means we waste lots of time fretting over decisions that can be reversed relatively quickly. How often have you sat in a meeting and asked: “Why are we debating such a small matter? Don’t we have more important stuff to deal with?”

When all decisions are treated like one-way doors, we overprocess. Our ministries become lethargic and bureaucratic rather than agile and innovative. Veto power is ceded to change resisters.

One of the reasons we fall into the trap of over-analysis is fear of shame. What will our peers think if we make a bad decision? In the name of “collaboration,” we host too many meetings and get too many people involved. If the decision ends poorly, we reason, at least the blame can be spread.     

Effective leaders don’t think this way. They take more risks and make more decisions than their tentative counterparts. Trial and error is a primary mode of learning. When bad decisions are made, they learn and move on. In doing so, they operate with an action bias and free themselves from a compulsive fear of failure.

At Amazon, managers are encouraged to make two-way door decisions even if they only have 70% of data. While another month of analysis might improve their decision by 5%, the delay is not worth the cost.   

If you have a moment, I recommend this humorous video from the TV show The Good Place. It features an indecisive person who treats every decision as a one-way door.

Four Final Thoughts

First, pilot programs can convert some one-way doors into two-way ones. For example, rather than committing to a new software program across the ministry, why not test it in a single department first? Or, before scraping a historical model of ministry, why not run a geographically limited pilot? Author Jim Collins labels this approach “firing bullets rather than cannon balls.” 

Second, creating a culture that embraces risk and countenances failure is important. Leaders who are slammed for poor two-way door decisions will freeze up. Demanding perfection – even implicitly – will set your ministry on the road to obsolescence.  

Third, labeling a decision as a two-way door is no excuse for acting recklessly or ill-informed. Leaders should act prudently with the information available. This may include consulting with small groups of peers or subordinates.   

Finally, when confronted with a decision-making situation, it is wise to emulate my church board chair by asking, “Is this a one-way or a two-way door decision?” Since three out of four of our decisions fit into the latter category, it is remarkably liberating not to overstress.   

Decisions differ in their significance, and we should handle them that way.

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Alec Hill is President Emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. He served for fourteen years as InterVarsity’s president and previously was dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University.


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