- What Bezos and the Marines Share in Decision Making
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November 21, 2023

General Eisenhower stood stoically behind the planning table, studying the weather reports and reconnaissance photos scattered before him. The tentative date for launching the long-awaited Allied invasion of Normandy was less than 72 hours away, but mounting uncertainties gnawed at Eisenhower's mind.

The latest forecasts from England's airfields and coves were typically mercurial for early June - favorable conditions one minute, ominous storms sweeping across the Channel the next. Even the navigation charts of the French coast before him seemed ominously obscured. 

Would the skies clear enough for air support? 

Would deadly German mines and artillery trap his forces like sitting ducks on the Norman beaches? 

With thousands of young lives at stake, Eisenhower grasped the enormity of committing to D-Day based on intelligence that was simply incomplete. In perhaps the greatest risk calculus of his career, the Supreme Allied Commander scribbled "June 5" at the top of the impending orders. Fortune now favored the bold, yet Eisenhower knew the outcome was beyond any mortal's control.

His intuition honed through decades of military experience, told Eisenhower that the diverse D-Day plans and contingencies could never account for every variable. As he pored over the maps and charts night after night, the forecasts changed hour to hour. Eisenhower grilled weathermen and generals daily. Were conditions truly suitable for Operation Overlord to commence on June 5? Every expert had an opinion, yet no one could promise perfect visibility or calm seas when the moment arrived.  

Weighing even heavier was the lack of true clarity on what enemy resistance the Allied invaders would encounter. Eisenhower's eyes fixed on aerial photos showing German defenses buried along the Norman coastline, but were they fully manned? Would Rommel's seasoned troops be lying in wait above Omaha Beach? It was impossible for intelligence to reveal the enemy's full strength. And once the juggernaut was set in motion, Eisenhower understood there could be no turning back. 

In many ways, the lifelong soldier felt personally ill-equipped to make a final judgement with so many unknowns and so many young lives hanging in the balance. Yet the entire Allied campaign depended on his solitary decision in that moment, one way or another. After agonizing for hours over the ambiguous omens and analysis, Eisenhower realized he must reconcile himself to exercising his best yet imperfect judgment. The time for certainty had long passed - the urgent moment for decisive leadership was at hand. After a brief delay, the invasion would go ahead at first light on June 6, with hope fortune would smile on them from across the turbulent Channel.

Decisions in the heat of the moment aren't just the stuff of action movies. In the real world, especially in business, making calls when the pressure is on can feel like navigating a minefield. It's not just about making choices; it's about making them quickly, with limited information. 

That's precisely why a conversation with a ex-military friend caught my attention. He introduced me to the decision-making concept of the "70% doctrine." The idea? Deciding with 70% of the information is often better than waiting for complete certainty. This approach isn't just about being bold; it's about being smart.

The Fog of Business

Business, like war, is unpredictable and messy. Jeff Bezos doesn't wait for perfect data to make bold moves at Amazon. He welcomes the uncertainty, making moves with just enough information to outflank his competition. 

"Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had," Bezos wrote in a 2016 letter to shareholders. "If you wait for 90 percent, in most cases, you're probably being slow."

This is the essence of the 70% principle: accept fate, make your move, and adapt as you go.

Guidance Over Rigidity

In both military and business leadership, the ability to adapt is key. The 70% solution isn't about vague directions; it's about clear intent coupled with the flexibility to adjust. This encourages creativity and innovation, which a rigid management style can stifle. Centralized decision-making is a handicap. The military understands this, so does Netflix and Amazon. Entrusting teams to make decisions based on ground-level intelligence leads to agility and rapid response to changing conditions.

A Bias Toward Action

Strategy is nothing without execution. The Marines know this well. They combine on-the-spot awareness with decisive action. In business, this translates to a bias towards doing rather than over-planning. Here's a quick 5-bullet approach:

1. Set clear, adaptable objectives.

2. Distinguish between essential and supplementary information.

3. Authorize your team to make decisions on behalf of the mission or project.

4. Welcome uncertainty as a part of the process.

5. Focus on rapid execution over perfection.

6. Trust your team. 

The 70% doctrine is more than a military tactic; it's a mindset that values agility, decisiveness, and adaptability. In business, these qualities are invaluable. Do you feel equipped to make high-stakes decisions with 70% of the information? Or will you wait for certainty that might never come?

author avatar
George Morris
I use my 20+ years of entrepreneurial experience and training to coach businesses on scaling up rapidly using Verne Harnish's Scaling Up framework. By doing so, my clients are more efficient and profitable, giving them the ability to make bigger impacts in the world. I deeply believe entrepreneurs are the best equipped to be the vehicle for meaningful change, and in the decade ahead, we'll see a substantial shift in how business is done. We'll move to a model where company purpose, impact, curiosity, and team health will be differentiators in overall business success. As Simon Sinek has pointed out, the finite games are the legacy of the past; we're moving to an infinite game.