Turning Irreversible Decisions into Reversible Ones

By: Nis Frome

Speed vs. quality is a misguided tradeoff, according to one of the world’s most innovative companies.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has repeatedly illustrated how the operating system powering his company’s continuous innovation distinguishes between types of decisions, not types of decision-making.

Some decisions are irreversible – they’re “one-way doors,” Bezos wrote in 1997. Irreversible decisions “must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation.” In other words, irreversible decisions need to be made with quality in mind. On the other hand, some decisions are reversible like “two-way doors” where “you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through.” Such decisions need to be made with speed in mind. The key though isn’t in making the tradeoff between quality and speed, but in recognizing when you don’t need to make the tradeoff at all.

In service design, we are often presented with decisions that seem irreversible. Unlike a digital product where new features can be rolled back in an instant upon negative user reactions, we can’t simply remodel an office if a new tenant isn’t happy. But I think it’s important to question the premise that each decision is inherently irreversible.

Alpha recently moved into a new office, and for six months before that, we toured other startup offices in New York for inspiration. It fascinated us to learn that there was virtually no correlation between how nice an office was or how much the build-out cost and how satisfied employees actually were with the space. The swanky offices with bars and rooftops were just as likely to have mistakes as the stodgier and more traditional offices, from layout to uncomfortable furniture. From the dozens of office managers we had conversations with, spending more rarely led to outcomes that exceeded employee expectations.

Repeatedly, we’d hear how unfortunate it was that these interior decisions were ‘irreversible.’ Our takeaway, however, wasn’t to be extra-careful to get every office decision right, because that seemed impossible. Rather, we sought to make every decision reversible – to move into our new office with as few irreversible decisions made as possible, and then to rapidly iterate.

We utilized temporary walls and barriers, applied virtually no branding, refrained from designating areas for specific purposes, and set generally low expectations for the move-in. In the months since then, we’ve learned a lot. Whiteboards have been replaced with Zoom Rooms. A handful of standing desks have hardly been used so we don’t need to order more. Areas we thought we’d want to turn into event spaces instead work better as quiet areas.

Overall, we’ve saved a lot in what would have been worthless investments, while shifting budget to greater opportunities. We’re now in the process of building out areas of our office based on feedback in a completely different way than we could have initially planned. And that’s not because we made decisions quickly or smartly, but because we made different types of decisions altogether.

Whether building digital products or skyscrapers, don’t make the false tradeoff of speed vs. quality. Rather, consider whether you need to make the tradeoff at all. Sometimes, the best design is one that’s reversible.

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This article was originally published on Alpha's blog and has been republished here with permission.