The 40-70 Colin Powell rule

Many of us fear to make tough decisions and when the moment comes to make the big decision, we look for information to help make the decision but we are not too sure how much information is adequate to make a good decision.

This is the challenge that is well tackled by Colin Powell, former head of US military forces and former Secretary of State. Colin Powell is a well-known and respected strategist and leader. His leadership theories are a subject of study by many scholars and practised by many of his admirers in the military and in public and private sectors too.

On this particular subject of making tough decisions, Powell prescribes the amount of information that one needs to make the decision. He says that we need between 40 and 70 percent of the total information to make a decision.

He believes that with less than 40 percent of information, we are bound to make a wrong decision. At the same time, if we keep looking for information beyond 70 percent, then by the time we make the decision, it will be so late that others will have taken that decision and moved on.  It will be too late!

According to Dr. Steven Anderson, a leadership author and analyst, we as human beings can tap into intuition to fill in the rest of 30 percent gap between the 70 percent information that we get and the full information required to make a decision.

We need to trust our guts. Our intuition or guts come in handy to help make good decisions in spite of having less than complete information.

If you aspire to be a great leader, you need to accept this reality and begin to practise Colin Powell’s 40-70 rule. It is not easy to embrace this rule. We feel like lacking and are afraid to make a decision with incomplete information.

And yet, that is the correct approach to decision making and leadership. Why exactly are we afraid to make quick decisions based on the majority but not all of the information required? Are we afraid of making the wrong decision?

Great leaders aim at ensuring that they make more correct decision than wrong ones. They do not aim to make zero wrong decisions. A leader that is so careful that makes no wrong decisions makes so few decisions that he or she cannot be a successful leader.

We are not rejecting the fact that good leaders need to care about the decisions they make. But they must be ready to fail. They should only ensure that they are wrong few times compared to the counts of the times they are correct. Good leaders accept uncertainty and they operate with uncertainty.

According to Dr. Anderson: “In my experience, people who want certainty in their decisions end up working for other people, not leading.”

Therefore, if you want to climb career ladders as a leader, you need to embrace uncertainty and begin to make decisions with incomplete information. You need to start to trust your guts feelings and use your intuition to make tough decisions based on incomplete information.

For this rule to work, we need to be resourceful. We need to rapidly get as much information as possible. Remember, this rule is not promoting laziness or that you do not need information to make a good decision.

Rather, the rule is saying you need to balance between perfection and speed. The best decision too late is worse than a half good decision in time! As you aim for quality, mind the timing also.

In closing, I will quote Dr. Anderson again: “So, the next time you have a tough decision to make, do what Colin Powell does, get enough information to make an informed decision and then trust your gut. You’ll be glad you did.”

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  • Purush

    Well said. Thanks to Mr. Matthews Mtumbuka. The fundamentals of this ‘Rise and Shine’ principle should be part of school curricula, particularly in African countries (and also in some countries in Asia) where the ‘art of decision making’ is somewhat lacking, as the child grows up, negatively affecting his/her entrepreneurship development.