Allostatic Load – Key Decision Analysis Part 9

by Ivan Mazour

The slight complexity of the decision analysis process that I run is that it works on a two year cycle, and therefore since this post is about decisions I made in 2019, there won’t be that much talk of covid. But it would be ridiculous to write a post on decision making at the beginning of 2021 without mentioning the futility of human preparedness for black swan events. No level of rigour, and no decision making framework, would have predictively taken into account the global pandemic we have just lived through. It’s a stark reminder that whilst the pursuit of mastery is vital, it’s only the journey that we have control over, not our final destination. We can but make the best decisions with the information we have at the time, over and over, watch the game play out, and do our best to enjoy the experience.

The original concept behind my decision analysis process was to create a feedback loop to train my instincts. Each major decision I would make, I would write down, as well as a prediction for what it would lead to. A year later I would come back and review if I was right, and if it was a good decision. At the end of that year I would collate a summary of learnings from the good and bad decisions. This has given me great insight into the trends and themes that connect my bad decisions. But as I now write my ninth analysis, just as I wrote on the 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, I come to realise that the process has been insufficient. While the vast majority of the decisions I’ve made have been good, there are always several every year that have been bad, and the themes that underpin them continue to be the same.

So this year, not only have I been analysing my decisions, I have also been iterating the process to make it more comprehensive. Firstly, rather than the notebooks I’ve been using for almost a decade, I have upgraded to a two-sided A4 page for each decision, which has clearly structured sections that force me to consider my state of mind, as well as the various variables which affect the outcome of the decision, and the various potential outcomes there might be. And I have added two weekly “thinking slots” where I spend an hour with a piece of paper (typically a digital one) considering and critically evaluating a decision which I have to make. The first of these changes puts a more structured taxonomy on the data I’m collecting in my feedback loop. The second overlays a critical decision making process on top of the instinctive one I’ve been training up for all these years. The plan is for these to break through some of the subjective, unconscious, irrational biases which drive me to make decisions which could have been prevented. Next year we’ll see how effective these have been.

The first two themes this year are closely intertwined, so I’ll talk about them at the same time. They are irrationality, and allostatic load.

1. In 2019 I made three totally separate decisions to “retain the status quo”, each of which was based on arguments which were entirely irrational. My mind built up a dogma which I genuinely believed in, and this led me to maintain the current state when the right move was clearly to make a change. I’ll give you a specific example. I grew up in Moscow where everyone lived in apartments. When I came to London I continued to live in apartments. And over the decades I started to strongly believe that only an apartment block would be secure enough to protect me from getting burgled. I refused to even consider the idea of living in a house, as it was clear to me that it would only be a matter of time before we would get burgled, and that was something I didn’t want to subject my family to. When my wife told me about all the great things that come with living in a house, I would brush it off, because the only factor that mattered was the burglarability of our home. It took some work with my coach, as well as a pretty strong stance by the boss, aka Mrs. Mazour, for me to finally understand that this was a completely irrational way to view the decision of where we lived, and that the many happy years of a family living in a house would easily outweigh the low risk and impact of a break-in. We ended up moving into a house just before lockdown, in time for us to have outdoor space and for me to have a separate office to work remotely from. Looking back it is extremely clear that I was wrong, and that my world view, my “calculus”, needed to be updated.

2. Some situations have a standard, accepted, way of solving them. I see this quite often in my team, where those people whose modus operandi is to follow all rules strictly get extremely frustrated at those people who just don’t. “But this is how it’s supposed to be done.” “But it says right there in this agreement that this is what they agreed to.” It is a shock to them that people change their mind, or that people forget or choose to ignore rules. The thing is that every situation in life is actually an emotional interaction between two or more humans, and therefore most of the time what’s needed is a human solution, rather than a rules-based one. Understanding people’s motivations and finding a solution which gives everyone a win is the real responsibility we have. Not just blindly following the rules. A perfect example of this is commercial disagreements. The accepted solution is to hire a lawyer, take the other side to court, spend endless hours and endless thousands of pounds, and at the end of it feel vindicated once you’ve won. But most of the time, just having a conversation with them will resolve the matter straight away. Having that conversation is stressful of course, and also takes skill. But it’s also typically the most effective approach.

3. “Time with less stress” is worth a lot more than I used to think. I mention allostatic load above – the official term for the long-term physical and mental impact of subjecting yourself to intense stress for a prolonged period of time. Each of us has our own battles to fight, and comparing them is impossible – they impact each of us in our own way. One thing that’s certain though is that choosing to be a CEO of a VC-backed startup does not lead to an easy life. Some stresses we choose to take on, this being one of them. Some stresses we have no choice but to take on, covid being a good example. But there is a third category – stresses which we hold on to because of pride, false self-confidence, or other emotional or irrational reasons. These stresses must be removed immediately. There is quite enough in the first two categories without us also shouldering an extra burden unnecessarily. I wrote last year about the importance of reducing complexity in life. This year I’m extending that to the eradication of stresses which we aren’t forced into, or that we haven’t taken on by choice.

4. My allostatic load has been a major cause of quite a few of the bad decisions I made in 2019. It was a particularly intense year, with our Series B, a young son, and a bunch of family matters all adding up. All of that, especially after seven solid years of running Ometria, led me to make several decisions where I basically offloaded a responsibility onto someone without fully validating that they were the right person to pass it on to. When I look back on these decisions, I knew deep down that they were wrong for the long-term, but I had so much on my plate that I did it just to free up some space to focus on the more important matters. Had I spent a bit more time ensuring that I found the right person to delegate them to, the issues would have gone away fully, rather than me just thinking that they had gone away. “Out of sight, out of mind” is definitely not an actual solution. Ridiculously, this was one of the lessons in my very first decision analysis blog post back in 2013, and here I am still learning that lesson almost ten years later.

5. The allostatic load also had a second side-effect. There were components of my life, and of my business, which I just didn’t have the energy to dive into and understand, and so chose to ignore. Some of them ended up being significantly broken, which led to significant fallout. But digging in and understanding that would have added a lot more stress, so my mind and body pushed back, and I chose the out of sight, out of mind option again. As an example, I had a department which was delivering results, but which I could sense wasn’t built rigorously. I definitely had enough data points to know that something was wrong, but I chose not to dig deeper. Sure enough, it went pretty pearshaped, and huge changes needed to be made. I now know that it is my job to validate the operational excellence of all components of my business (and life) rather than allowing myself to blindly ignore some components.

6. Closely coupled with the above is my personal tendency to be an operator and to want to be in the detail and part of the team. I enjoy building systems and building teams, I enjoy making them run effectively, but I also enjoy being in the thick of things with them. However, as a CEO of a company with over a hundred people across the world, I no longer have the luxury of being able to do that. Strategy, vision, internal and external communication, hiring – these are all areas which are very high leverage and which I need to spend the majority of my time on. And that means that in order to achieve the point above, I need to have people around me who are able to get to an even higher level of rigour, detail, and operational excellence, than I would in each area. My check-ins can then be much more lightweight, as it would take minimal time for them to demonstrate their rigour, and for me to be comfortable focusing on non-operational matters.

The third theme is one that continues to be present, year after year. It is my approach to putting trust in people.

7. Inappropriately trusting people has been an endless theme over the past nine years of analysing my decisions, and over the course of my life in general. My VP People Operations recently described it as people learning to “speak Ivan”, and that is a metaphor that has burned itself into my mind. My coach helped me understand a few years ago the duality of the concept of trust. Trusting people’s integrity and trusting people’s competence are two totally disparate decisions. I have an underlying desire to believe that people are good, which has certainly got me into trouble before, but that’s something I don’t want to change. The world is a dark place when you start to assume that everyone’s out to get you. The much bigger challenge I have is that I allow that same desire to translate into believing that people are competent and capable of the responsibility I give them. I assume competence until I discover that it is missing. So people learn to speak Ivan, and through that mask the fact that competence missing for a long time. Being able to talk about how to do something, and actually doing it, are two very different things. I have to keep reminding myself to look for the actual results and outcomes, and ignore what people are saying, so that I don’t keep making this mistake over and over.

8. In line with the above, my hiring and evaluation process needs to be much less focused on chemistry, discussion and presentation, and instead be focused on detail and results. In the past I would assume that the VPs I was hiring would be significantly more capable than me, and that therefore I should just, as all the blog posts say, “get out of their way”. This has proven to be effective in a few cases, but in the majority this has actually been a highly ineffective approach. A lack of framework, an inability to go into detail, the demonstration of bad judgement – these are all issues that don’t magically solve themselves if you give them time. They need to be discovered very early on. And if they are visible in the in the interview process, or in the first few weeks of probation, then a decision should be taken straight away, without waiting. The best hires make an immediate and noticeable difference in terms of actual results and outcomes – within the first week you’ll have a strong sense, and within a month you will 100% know.

9. The best people, on the other hand, just need a bar to be set for them, and a confidence boost, and they will stretch themselves to grow and achieve. So many people around me continue to amaze me with just how far they can push themselves, and how quickly they can continue to develop. This one is another oldie but goodie which has followed me through the years and was there in last year’s post too. Competence on its own isn’t enough though. There must be total alignment on the outcome or objective, and there must be a values fit. Each of these are independent, and each of these are vital. Without competence you’ll have people trying hard but failing. Without alignment, you’ll have people achieving the wrong thing, or even worse using their energy to fight against you. Without a values fit you will struggle to work together and it will take too much emotional energy to succeed. But when you have all three, when the fit is right, when they truly care about the outcome, and have the underlying capability (even if that has required a stretch), then what comes out of that really is magic.

I don’t want to still be writing in another nine year’s time how because of my overload I chose to delegate to the wrong people to get things off my plate. Or how I chose to ignore something that was obviously wrong because it was just too hard to add it onto my plate. So these are the nine lessons I’ll be taking with me into 2021, as well as the evolved process that not only trains my instincts for the future but also helps make each individual decision even more likely to be a good one. This year I am going to religiously test and validate my decisions before I make them, and I hope these learnings help you with your own decision making too.

My best wishes to you for 2021. May it be full of hope, excitement and rebirth. May the new life that you build for yourself as we re-enter the physical world and rebuild our society be even better than the one you left behind.


Find out more on the about Ivan Mazour page.
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Greg Nance January 3, 2021 - 12:41 am

My favorite Key Decision Analysis yet! So fascinating seeing how themes play out and evolve over time.

Wishing you, T, and the little guy all the best for 2021!!

Ivan Mazour January 3, 2021 - 10:27 am

Thanks Greg! Hope 2021 is a great year for you too!


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