A few weeks ago, while on a cycling trip to Italy, near the beautiful north-eastern city of Rimini, I crossed the river Rubicon (‘Il Rubicone’) during a jaunt into the nearby hills used by the likes of the late Marco Pantani to train for the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia (obviously climbed at a much slower pace). I crossed the Rubicon twice that day, and a few more times during the trip.
This is of course, was a geographical point of some historical significance (although there are questions). It produced a popular idiom that is of powerful use in decision-making. Before getting into why, it’s useful to understand the context. In January, 49BC, Julius Caesar, returning from the end of his governorship over a region that spanned southern Gaul to Illycricum (which includes modern-day Spain through to Hungary and the Balkan states) stood on the northern banks of the Rubicon, with his army. The Rubicon had served as the provincial border. It was forbidden for a general to command an army in Rome and the Roman Senate had ordered Caesar to disband his before returning. Crossing the river with his army not only was illegal, but it amounted to an act of treason, a war on the state.
Contemplating his options prior to crossing, Caesar is said to have then uttered the phrase ‘alea iacta est’ or ‘the die is cast’. Caesar then crossed the river with his army and the act precipitated civil war and the transition to the Roman Empire from the Roman Republic. ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ has now become known as a phrase signifying an irrevocable decision that commits one to a specific course of action.
This is a very powerful concept in decision-making. We need to know when we are facing a ‘crossing the Rubicon’ moment because knowing this provides us with some very useful guidance about how to make that decision. With that in mind, here are three things we can do to utilise this concept:
I – Recognise ‘crossing the Rubicon’ decisions – In framing any decision, it is always worth taking a moment to ask yourself – “how easily reversible is this decision?” Decisions that are not easily (of course there are always gradients of reversibility) reversible are indicative of a potential Rubicon moment for you and your organisation – and should therefore be treated carefully. In one of my many podcast conversations for All Things Risk, decision scientist and former world poker champion Annie Duke poses this is a fundamental question in figuring out ‘how to decide’. She is not alone. From Dr. Bent Flyvbjerg, the world’s leading expert on ‘megaprojects’ through to Grant Purdy, a globally-recognised expert on organisational decision-making under uncertainty, this is a fundamental question. A couple of further heuristics to use:
‘10/10/10/10’ – Ask yourself whether the outcome of the decision will matter in 10 days, 10 weeks, 10 months or 10 years. The more it will matter in the future, the more likely it is that you are facing a Rubicon decision and you should therefore take the decision in a more measured fashion.
The Rubicon point – It is also useful to ask yourself the point at which taking the decision will set you off on an ‘irreversible’ path. Often, that is when ‘shovels hit the ground’ and funds and other resources are allocated to acting. If ‘reversing’ the decision means writing off those resources, that’s the Rubicon point and you or your organisation needs to be sufficiently certain about the chosen course of action.
II – Know that they’re actually rare – One of the liberating things about ‘Rubicon’ decisions is that by comparison with the tens of thousands of decisions we make each week, they are very rare. Once we realise that a decision is far more reversible that previously thought, it frees us up to perhaps experiment or move more quickly than we previously thought we could. It also means that if the decision doesn’t work out, we would still avoid big regrets and we are more likely to learn something. We can think of these decisions more like experiments or investments in learning, regardless of the result.
III – But decide differently when you’re faced with one – However, if we are faced with a Rubicon decision, our approach needs to be different. We need take more time and energy in working through the decision, thinking about our options, getting diverse opinions and considering our assumptions. We need to take more time in active planning – or as Dr. Flyvbjerg describes, ‘Pixar planning’, after Pixar Studios. Pixar goes through a very rigorous planning process for each of its films before deciding to fund and release it. In fact, a ‘Pixar movie goes through the cycle from script to audience feedback eight times.’ The key point here whether your decision involves a personal investment, a home renovation or a massive product launch, is that the planning phase is the time to iterate because once budgets get spent, products get launched and the river is crossed, the cost of change goes up exponentially. As a result, active planning before this becomes indispensable.
The next time you are making a key decision, take a moment to consider whether or not the decision you are pondering is some type of ‘crossing the Rubicon’ moment. This is an important aspect of framing your decision for success. That way, when your die is cast, you feel calm and confident.
 How Big Things Get Done by Dr. Bent Flyvbjerg