A decade of vital decisions – Key Decision Analysis Part 10

by Ivan Mazour

Ten years. There’s that quote that’s typically attributed to Bill Gates but has been said by just about everyone – you always overestimate what you can do in one year, and underestimate what you can do in a decade. Well ten years ago I started to evaluate every key decision I made in my life, and write about what I learned from the outcomes in an annual blog post. And this will be the tenth time I write such a blog post, just as I did on the 1st of January 2021, 1st of January 2020, 1st of January 2019, 1st of January 2018, 1st of January 2017, 1st of January 2016, 1st of January 2015, 1st of January 2014 and 1st of January 2013. Looking back that quote is undoubtedly true. I could not have imagined back then that I would be where I am today. But looking back, there were lessons I learned ten years ago that I’m still learning today. So there’s still a long way to go!

Over the years my approach to analysing my decisions has evolved. I started with a short note in a notebook. I moved on to carefully a structured page of A4 in a file. And, to fit in with the overall theme of 2021, my latest approach lives in the metaverse and is done digitally as a Notion template. I miss the physical experience of writing up the decision. But I find it to be much more effective to type and edit as I think, adjusting and honing my thoughts as I evaluate the decision. So the digital world has won, once again.

So onwards to the lessons. And life, it appears, is really just about being surrounded by the right people. Over the past year (and realistically the past decade) I’ve seen the impact this not just on me, but on many people around me. Now of course the concept of “right” is a rather complex one when it comes to people, and clearly one that I still haven’t fully worked out after ten years, but one that I’ve now realised is well worth the effort to understand.

What does it mean to choose the right life partner? Or the right business partner? Or, perhaps, the right doctor, or lawyer, or architect? Well ten years ago I wrote about the importance of moving certain people out of my life. And even now, this year, over fifty percent of the lessons, and the negative impact to my life, have come from people I chose to surround myself by.

What’s clear is that “picking people” is not a skill you can gain quickly, but you can certainly hone. Certain concepts, once understood, help massively. For example selecting friends based on whether their belief system and their values are aligned with yours. Or rigorously screening for capability in professional interviews, vs relying on previous experience. However while that can help when adding people to your life, the reality is that there will always be mistakes, whether personal or professional, and the skill of identifying when someone should no longer be in my life, and the skill of breaking off that relationship, is something I’ve spent a decade learning, and clearly still haven’t mastered.

This overlaps significantly with the second big theme of learnings for this year, that of logic vs emotion. While I feel like for many years now I’ve been aware of the importance and impact of emotions, every year I continue to gain more and more awareness and understanding of quite how much we are all emotionally-driven beings, quite how complex that makes the world to navigate, and what an amazing opportunity comes with becoming an expert at understanding and navigating life on an emotional level.

And the final theme is one of growth. In particular it’s one of understanding and internalising the pace of change of the world, which we have no control over, and therefore the fundamental and inevitable requirement to keep up with it, whether personally or in business.

In 2020 I made 22 decisions which I considered major enough to be analysed using my Key Decision Analysis process. Between a year and two years have passed since those decisions were made, and written down. Below, just as I’ve done for the past decade, I will share openly what I learned when reviewing the outcomes of those decisions.

Getting the right people on, and off, the bus.

One of the resounding lessons in one of the best known leadership books of the past century, Good to Great, is to get the right people on the bus. It’s a lesson that many leaders, and many books, have echoed. And it seems so obvious. However here I am, a decade into analysing my decisions, still finding that I’m nowhere near mastery of this particular element of my life. Here are just a few of the specific related lessons I learned from my 2020 decisions.

There is a person who is a good fit for anything in life. They are out there. No matter how niche, how complex, how strange, how unique, they are out there. They just need to be searched for and found. And when you find them, you’ll know, and you’ll wonder how you managed without them. This is just as true for your personal accountant as it is for a leader of a department in your business.

EQ is a force multiplier which cannot be replaced by something else. A person with high EQ is able to have a conversation, and to adapt, at a pace which cannot be matched by someone with low EQ. And in a world which is changing as fast as ours is, that means that surrounding yourself only by high EQ people is a must.

Having no one is better than having someone who is a bad fit. There is an implicit, emotionally-driven, fear of making a change, and a separate emotionally-driven hope that everything will work out. Inevitably both of them turn out to be wrong and it takes too long to come to the decision that a change needs to be made. I still haven’t cracked this one. What I know is that I’ve fallen both for the fear, and for the hope, too many times now, and each time making the change led to a clearly positive outcome that didn’t have any of the issues which had been built up in my head. I’ll share below some approaches I’ve learned for getting better at this.

When people are high-leverage, e.g. leaders, even a small lack of alignment can do a huge amount of damage. The bigger the organisation the less visibility you have of the damage being done, and the more likely those leaders have the skill to “manage up” and change the reality you perceive. While one solution is to spend more time with front line managers and individual contributors, something I always end up realising I should have done more of, the real solution is to listen to our emotions whenever something doesn’t “feel right”. That sense is just as important, if not more so, then evidence, because often our minds choose to misinterpret or ignore evidence, and sometimes evidence is simply plain misrepresented. Our emotions however, especially when they’re developed, are tuned into a level of detail which simply cannot be picked up logically. And when they pick something up, they need to be listened to.

In addition to attuning your emotional radar, it’s vital to be clear yourself, and with the other person, exactly what the expectations are. In a professional relationship, this is defined by the outcomes they own and the behaviour and approach they are expected to take to achieve them. It’s easy to get excited by someone and skip over this step, but this step is vital. It’s also easy to forget to review this step regularly, but people’s perception diverges with every moment that passes, and staying aligned requires regular communication.

A strong fit shows itself very quickly. People with the right EQ, IQ and skill make an impact in days, and do so proactively. If you’re finding yourself trying to course correct multiple minor issues, having to “re-align” or having to implement coaching to get someone to the right place, it’s not the right fit. You’re in hope mode, obfuscating and not wanting to face up to the reality. There is no doubt about those people who are the right fit – you see the impact, the outcomes, straight away, and your only worry is about losing those outcomes if that person is no longer there.

And last but not least on this point, there’s an old saying that it’s only when times get tough that you find out who your real friends are. Well Covid showed me that it’s when times get tough that you find out who the mercenaries are and who the missionaries are too. A few relatively new members of my team left as soon as we reduced our salaries and growth ambitions, which we did in March 2020. The rest of my team stayed, took the reduction, powered through, and rebuilt the business once it was clear that Covid would be net-positive for the retail and ecommerce industry and hence for our offering. I was very grateful, and very proud, to have been able to celebrate our Series C, which validated their belief. And as for the people who left, there were signs even when hiring them that something wasn’t right, and they’re signs I should have listened to.

Emotions eat logic for breakfast

Now all of the lessons above are to do with people, but almost all of them are to do with decision making, and in particular the impact emotions have on it. As humans, we mostly pride ourselves on being logical, rational beings, with a brain significantly more developed than other animals. And yet, that doesn’t seem to show up in our behaviour quite as often as one would think.

I’ve recently listened to the incredible BBC Reith Lectures on AI. In the first of the lectures Stuart Russell talks about the original definition of intelligence, from the 1950s, which is still used as the foundation for AI research. Intelligence is the level to which your actions match your objectives. Well the more I study human beings and emotions, the more I realise how often our actions actually don’t match our objectives, even though we try so hard to make them do so.

There are a number of scenarios where I allow myself to “just believe”. Whenever I’m overwhelmed and just need to reduce my allostatic load, for example, just having someone available and willing to help seems like a win. Sometimes by luck that works out. But at other times that person is clearly not right, and I end up not only just kicking the can down the road, but making it much worse too.

Another scenario which keeps coming up is not seeing a decision I’ve made as an error, and acting to reverse it quickly. This is one of the hardest things to see and evaluate objectively. We are wired to be totally bought in to a decision that we’ve made, and to try absolutely everything to make it work before we accept that we were wrong. And yet often it’s objectively clear, to others at least, very quickly that the decision needs to be reversed. The boiling the frog metaphor is so well known and so well understood, and even with that, it’s almost impossible to see when it is you who is, in fact, the frog.

There are two elements which help with this which I’ll be taking forward into 2022. The first is to listen to those emotional signals and not ignore them. Whenever I’m kidding myself into making the wrong decision, there is always an underlying sense of unease. There is always a sign of some kind. It’s just that because it’s typically an emotional signal, it’s normally hidden and not very clear. Listening to it, stopping, and taking a step back is vital. It’s the first step of preventing a mistake.

The second is to get objective input into vital decisions. For many years I thought that this process on its own would be enough. And it’s certainly been helpful. Of the 22 key decisions I made in 2020, only 5 ended up being wrong. But I still end up making a specific set of bad decisions, and I know that I would not have made them had I taken the time to talk them through in detail with someone who wasn’t as attached to the outcome as I was. In fact for many of the bad decisions I’ve made in the past few years, my co-founder could clearly see the mistake coming, and pointed it out to me at the time. And any time I talk decisions of this level of significance through with my coach, he points out areas where I was irrationally tricking myself into believing something that wasn’t actually true. Either way, we are clearly not as effective at making decisions on our own as we are when we talk them through with someone objective. So making that a part of the process going forward is key.

Growth is not optional

The third theme of learnings this year has been about growth. In 2020 Covid hit, and we made the difficult decision to pause our growth, reduce the size of our team, and evaluate the pandemic would have on the economy and on our customer base. Since none of us had ever lived through something like this, we were preparing for any set of eventualities, including a huge loss of our customer base and revenues.

Within two quarters it became clear that retailers were in fact even more in need of a customer data and marketing platform than before. They were all suddenly competing in a fully digital world, where their competitors were always just one click away, and where creating a memorable and compelling customer experience was paramount. By the summer we had updated our process to be fully remote-friendly, and had started to rebuild our team and invest into growth again.

While the decision to slow down made sense at the time, and I consider it the right one in my analysis, the practical outcome was that we needed to scale twice as hard as we would have done, just to maintain our growth rate. And that took an intense amount of energy. A lot of people ended up getting burned out by the experience.

The thing with startups is that they are as Paul Graham said ultimately just growth machines. The only thing that defines them is growth. There is no choice about that. Ambitious growth targets need to be set, and then execution has to happen in order for them to be hit. Do or do not, there is no try.

Constantly keeping up with this kind of growth requires consistent forward planning, multiple years out, while also a relentless focus on day to day execution. This is a challenging mental state to be in, and a skill which needs developing. And one might think that it’s a bit too stressful and maybe a different career path is easier. But I think that’s a huge mistake. Because it’s a skill which is vital to surviving and succeeding in today’s world in general.

The world is changing so fast right now that it will be unrecognisable in ten years time, and that means we need to be planning for that, and adapting with it. Ten years ago a good investment decision seemed to be to buy a house. But it wasn’t. A good investment decision was to buy a house worth of bitcoin. And this year a good investment decision was to buy a digital image of a monkey. There is no business school foundation that is going to help you with that kind of pace of change. It takes intense first principles thinking, long-term analysis and planning, a relentless attitude of constant change, and the confidence to place big bets based on the conviction that comes out of taking that approach. And that’s not one approach to life, it’s the only approach to life, because the world certainly isn’t going to slow down any time soon.

While there were many other lessons I learned from my 2020 decisions, these three themes seem sufficiently significant to form a part of my overall life philosophy. Surround yourself by the right people. Learn how to live in a world which is emotionally-driven. And accept and master constant change and ever-accelerating growth. Seems like more than enough for a year’s worth of learning.

As we enter 2022, may it bring you the right friends and colleagues, may it bring you many happy experiences, and may it be a year of effective and successful personal growth. Happy new year frens. Wagmi.


Find out more on the about Ivan Mazour page.
And watch Ivan Mazour's TEDx Talk - "Why we shouldn't be scared of sharing our personal data".

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Greg Nance January 3, 2022 - 3:22 am

Have been looking forward to this, Ivan, and immensely enjoyed your recap! Love how you’re returning to timeless themes while leveraging insights from the journey… talk about the power of compounding. Jim Collins would be proud 🙂

Much love to London and for a banner 2022!

Ivan Mazour January 3, 2022 - 8:32 am

Happy New Year Greg! And congratulations on your own incredible ten year achievement – was so proud to read about it when you recently shared! All the best for the coming year. Hope it’s one where our paths can finally cross in person again.


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