Decision-making is one of the most important things leaders do. We expect leaders to be decisive. We expect them to make good decisions. Unfortunately, most of the writing on decision-making and a whole lot of practice is oversimplistic with “bias for action” replacing good sense.
There are already boatloads of books and courses and seminars on decision-making. I won’t replicate them or replace them. Instead, I want you to take the following as suggestions that can make your process better so that your decisions get better.
Define the problem with stories
Lots of writing on decision-making says we should begin with facts, but we don’t do that. Instead, we do the human thing. We start with opinions.
Don’t start with opinion gathering. Don’t go hunting down facts to support your opinions, either. Instead, get the story of the problem.
Stories are the way human beings have squeezed lots of meaning into a tiny space for as long as we’ve used language. Ask somebody who’s affected by the problem to tell you the story of the problem. When did he or she first notice it? What happened then?
Don’t just get one story. Get several. Lay the key events out on a timeline. Ask for clarification of important points and descriptions. Pretty soon the stories will dilute opinion and leave you with a definition and a few facts you can work with.
Define the boundaries of your process
Some problems don’t need to be solved. Sometimes you don’t have to make a decision. Sometimes, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. There won’t be enough benefit to repay the time and effort to make a good decision.
Remember that some problems can be solved quickly. Other times the quality of your decision benefits from adequate time and a thorough process.
Determine what you know
When Harold Geneen was CEO at ITT, he spent time on the search for what he called “unshakable facts.” My experience is you rarely get to the unshakable facts. You’ll never know everything you need to know, but you can divide ideas into a few categories.
You really do know some things. That happens when you have evidence to support your idea or “fact.” The stories of the problem should give you several items that fall in the “known” category.
You “know” some things without evidence. I call those “presumed.” Your challenge is to find the evidence to support them.
Of course, there are important things we don’t know. Then the challenge is to do some research and learn as much as you can.
A problem for many decision-makers is not knowing what they don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld labeled those things, “unknown unknowns.” They can deliver nasty surprises.
You should make an effort to determine as many nasty surprise possibilities as you can. Do some what-if brainstorming to determine what could go wrong. Conduct a pre-mortem. “Game it out” with several decision trees.
The decision isn’t done until the issue is resolved
I’ve got news. When you decide, you’re not done yet. Implementation should be part of decision-making. You can’t know or anticipate everything, so your plan is going to start coming apart quickly.
Back in 1871, Helmuth von Moltke wrote: “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.”
More modern, non-military versions include “No plan survives the first contact with reality” and “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Your plan is fragile. You won’t be able to anticipate everything. And the universe gets a vote.
This is the time to use that resilience you developed. Adapt as necessary.
We don’t usually begin with facts. We start with opinions.
Define the problem with stories.
Define the boundaries of the problem.
Decide how important the problem is.
Determine what you know and don’t know.
Spot potential problems
The decision isn’t done until the issue is resolved.
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