9. Peter Klein on Entrepreneurial Decision Making

Decision-making can feel particularly challenging for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs face the unpredictability of the future with a limited set of resources, limited information, very little history of what works and what doesn’t, and few, if any, people to help. There’s no corporate research department and not much big data. Decision-making can be daunting. How can economics help? Today we discussed this topic with Peter Klein.

Show Notes

Economics helps us understand the process of decision-making, and how to enhance it with human creativity and wisdom rather than spreadsheets and analytics. The first step is to recognize and embrace what economists call uncertainty. Entrepreneurs face it all the time. We can’t know the future, or even the number of possibilities. The world is organic and human, and future outcomes depend on the interactions of millions of humans. No-one can predict them. Don’t try. But don’t be intimidated by uncertainty.

Understand the difference between risk and uncertainty. Risk is a mathematically definable probability. When we roll a 6-sided die, we don’t know which number will come up but we can calculate the probabilities for each one of 6 possible outcomes. That’s a highly defined situation with a mathematical probability, as is insurance risk. Uncertainty is different – we can’t list the possible future outcomes or attach a probability to each one.

In uncertainty, think of decision-making as a continuous process, not a fork in the road. There is no need to fear decision making. It’s not a back-and-white choice, X or Y, right or wrong. Think of decisions as continuous; we decide, we try something out, we experiment, we get results, we adjust, we try again. Every piece of new information we obtain from experiments helps us make a more informed decision next time. Entrepreneurs are good at dealing with this continuous flow of decisions, and making adjustments as they go – like a basketball coach on the sideline. The system of decision making is far more important than any one single decision.

Peter Klein calls this process entrepreneurial judgement. Entrepreneurial judgement is reasoned, purposeful action regarding feasible outcomes. It’s not formal or mechanistic or mathematical, but nor is it blind guessing. The key is that it is the entrepreneur who makes the final decision. He or she is not executing decisions that others make. Entrepreneurs make their own reasoned judgement in a middle ground between guessing and mathematical certainty.

There is a face it all the time. to mitigate uncertainty. Dr. Klein defines the process as (1) defining what type of uncertainty you are facing (2) taking appropriate steps to narrow the scope of the particular type of uncertainty you are facing; (3) exercising judgement – i.e. making a decision and taking action – in a timely manner when uncertainty is reduced but not eliminated; (4) gathering feedback for your action and continuously repeating this process.

Environmental uncertainty is external to the entrepreneur and means that many possible outcomes could result from a decision. You plan to launch a new product. You don’t know how the competition will react, or how the consumer might change or what will happen to regulation. In this situation, entrepreneurs try to narrow the range of possible outcomes, using experience, history, testing and other means. For example, you could run a test of different price levels to ascertain which one generates the most purchases, and use the test results to narrow the possible outcomes.

Creative uncertainty is internal to the entrepreneur with a defined goal but many possible options of means to reach it. You want to sell a million units at $5, but don’t know which combination of messaging, media, and promotion is best to help achieve the goal. You narrow the range of possible options by hiring an expert marketing agency, instructing them to develop 6 alternatives, and choosing between the options based on consumer reactions.

Absolute uncertainty occurs when there is a wide range of possible outcomes, and a large set of possible options for action, in a dynamic environment of change. You want to start a company but you are not sure which consumer needs you are best placed to meet, or which of many options you would select to meet them. You have to find a way to narrow both the possible outcomes (which needs will I serve) and the possible options for action (what kind of a company will I launch). Dr. Klein used the example of Netflix. Reed Hastings wanted to start a tech company but wasn’t sure what kind – absolute uncertainty. He settled on direct delivery of VHS tapes, with moderate success, but at least he established a consumer need to fill. But then the technology environment changed, first to DVD’s (easier to ship) and then to streaming (better consumer solution but technologically very challenging). Netflix thought and re-thought the environmental uncertainty (changing technologies and consumer tastes) and the creative uncertainty (how would pricing, subscriptions, packaging etc affect outcomes?) in a continuous process of experimentation and recursion.

Entrepreneurial decision-making is evaluating and mitigating uncertainty. Narrow the range of your options and possible outcomes. Decide and act, and don’t be afraid to do so. Think of decision-making as a continuous process, one at which you can get better over time and with experience.


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