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Matt Douglas, Founder and CEO of Punchbowl.com

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It’s Not a Fucking Democracy

Those who have worked with me at Punchbowl, know that I have a phrase I like to throw around now and again: “It’s not a fucking democracy.”

Now before you jump all over me for swearing, please let me remind you of a few things:

1) When I started this blog, I promised I would be authentic. This is what I actually say. Sorry, I’m from New York.

2) Even though I’m the CEO of Punchbowl (and I draw inspiration from my daily work) I started this blog so I could have an independent voice that’s not formally affiliated with the company.

3) In this specific case, using a swear is very intentional — when I say this phrase, I want to get people’s attention.

So when do I use this phrase and what do I mean?

Two roads diverge in forest
Two roads diverged into a yellow wood… make a decision!

I believe that one of the competitive advantages of a start-up is the ability to make rapid decisions. As the CEO, one of my responsibilities is to listen to various input and guide discussions towards the best decision. Often, there are competing priorities and the team can’t reach a consensus. In those situations, I’ll try to help the team see the issue through a different lens or I’ll re-state our current priorities as it pertains to the issue at hand. But sometimes, we reach the point where a decision must be made and there is no consensus, someone has to make a decision. In those cases, I remind everyone that it’s ‘not a fucking democracy.’

It’s important to note that when I utter this phrase it’s after I believe that everyone’s point of view has been heard and we’ve discussed the issue for some time. With a smile on my face, I remind everyone that it’s ‘not a fucking democracy’ and I do one of two things:

1) I ask someone else to make the final decision (usually the subject-matter expert)
2) I make the decision myself

Regardless of who makes the decision, it’s final and we all have to live with it. That’s how we make rapid decisions and put execution above endless discussion. As I like to remind everyone: a good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan that is never executed.

At the large companies where I’ve worked (MetaCreations, Adobe, Bose) the prevailing philosophy is often ad nauseam discussion. I’ve wasted too many hours of my life sitting in meetings where it was clear that there were multiple good decisions. The problem was often that the leader of the group didn’t grab the bull by the horns and make a decision. That the beauty of my phrase: it reminds people that hierarchy exists for a reason and that speed of execution is one of the most important factors for business success.

If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself “well, heck — I like discussions and I don’t like to be told what to do,” then I have a few suggestions for your career path. Either start your own company, or join one of these places where you can discuss things to your hearts content (e.g it IS a happy democracy):

1) A university setting: more often than not, universities promote debate and discussion as an important method of learning. If you want to be involved with discussions for the sake of discussions consider taking some university classes or becoming a professor

2) Non-profits: from what I’ve heard, non-profits love to discuss plans and ideas whether or not they are actually ever executed. One hallmark of non-profits is that they often have very large Boards. Try making a decision when you have that many chiefs in one room!

3) Government: You ever wonder why Congress gets so little done? Tune into C-Span and you’ll see endless procedures, discussion, and debate. Once in a while they actually vote on something of substance.

4) Big company marketing departments: Since I’ve sat through so many of these meetings, I’ll add it to the list. You can discuss ideas for marketing your product or service until you’re blue in the face at some companies. And very few of the ideas ever get executed

One other note: my phrase has become popular enough at Punchbowl, that it’s often now simply referred to it by its acronym: NAFD (hat tip, Ryan).

KEY TAKEAWAY: Next time you are sitting in a meeting that seems to have endless discussion with no end in sight, look at the leader of the group (or become the leader) and say “It’s not a fucking democracy” (or just NAFD!) and make a decision. Then get on to the business of executing — that’s where real work happens.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13980840867479075511 Colin JT Woods

    I agree.I wanted to say something more substantial, but that sums it up. Listen to the concerns of all stakeholders and listen to all your creative resources. When the arguments start to repeat decide and move on it. Trust your gut. Always re-evaluate.In the army the biggest divider between competence and incompetence in regards to leadership was decisiveness over correctness.

©2018 Matt Douglas