Colin D Ellis
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The Road Not Taken – A Reflection On Decision-Making

When I dropped my kids off at school last week, I went into my daughter’s classroom to have a look at some of the things she’d been working on. One of the things that she showed me was some poems that she’d written and of course, (super proud Dad moment), they’re just fantastic. She asked me what my favourite poem was.

I wasn’t much of a studier at school if I’m honest. As a boy growing up in Liverpool, you generally either want to be a footballer or a musician and little else matters other than those two things. And yet, despite this, I loved English. I loved words and the different ways they could be used and interpreted. I found it fascinating that one story or poem could mean one thing to one person and something completely different to another. 

And I loved The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

As a 15-year old it was a fantastic metaphor for the decisions that I had ahead of me.

In it, Frost talks about being at the fork of two paths in a forest and of trying to conjure up the foresight of what lies at the end of each:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

At this stage Frost makes the decision to take the one he felt he should take as it had the ‘better claim’, even though both paths seemed identical:

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

By the end of the third stanza, Frost is already hinting at regret of what could’ve been had he taken the other path, knowing that he could never go back and take it now:

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

He closes out with a wistful ‘sigh’ that in the years to come he will forever wonder what would have happened if he’d have taken the path, before asserting that he knows that the road he took would turn out to be the right one:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

It is a hugely misunderstood poem as everyone reads the last line as a carpe diem ‘he made the right decision!’ moment, when in reality, what Frost is saying is that it didn’t really make any difference at all and we should simply make the best of the decisions that we make rather than thinking about ‘what could have been’.

In a business context, decisions can only be made based on the details and risks that are known at that precise point in time. It’s impossible to know with 100% accuracy what will happen in the future. 

The important thing, however, is to make a decision.

To not stand at the crossroads for hours waiting for a hugely detailed report to be delivered in order to tell you exactly which path to take. To not send people down both paths and have them report back months later. Or to go back to where you started and avoid the decision altogether.

According to research by decision-making experts Vroom and Jago, in times of crisis and uncertainty, the most effective leaders make prompt decisions and yet too many projects in organisations around the world are stymied by indecision and/or a lack of courage. The consequence of this is confusion, demotivated staff, delays to delivery and loss of respect for the person who should be making the decision.

As Frost describes, there’s no ‘right’ decision at that time, other than to just make one and move on, regardless of the uncertainty that may lie ahead.

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