Bad news: we are bombarded by needing to make decisions every minute of the day. Paper or plastic? Vente or grande? Buy or sell? The need to consciously decide ranges from the trivial to the critical. Some folks are now talking about decision fatigue, a condition caused by having to stop and weigh options numerous times during the day. Case in point: it is early morning and I am attempting to order my breakfast from room service in a hotel on a business trip. The cheerful service person asks me the following in quick succession: Bagel, muffin or toast? Plain or fruit yogurt? Orange or cranberry juice? I was hungry and half asleep, had not really started my day and felt burdened by having to weigh so many seemingly inconsequential choices. These decisions are trivial yet they do take a certain amount of cerebral energy. What if I exhaust my brain power on food long before I need it to guide and advise clients on sound leadership practices? My example may seem too simple to apply to a leader’s role in decision making yet I see many similar instances with leaders drawn minute by minute in endless machinations of weighing options and prioritizing actions. At day’s end, one wonders what will be left of their energy and cognition to tackle a late in the day serious crisis. In this newsletter, I will share with you some tips and techniques to use to evaluate your own decision making process and to improve on the quality of decisions. I hope you will glean from these words some nuggets of assistance that will help give your brain a rest and avoid the perils of decision fatigue. Enjoy the beauty of spring, take a long walk and celebrate warm weather, blue skies, and the scent of fresh flowers!
— AliceAlice Waagen, PhD Founder, www.workforcelearning.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
On Decision Making: Better Decisions, Better Results
By Dr. Alice Waagen
For business leaders, the need to make decisions in a thoughtful and systematic manner can be a major portion of their job. Faulty decisions made by senior leaders can quickly cascade down to a negative impact to the bottom line. In my experience, leaders seek to improve the quality of their decisions yet struggle with the speed essential to keep things moving. As one leader shared with me recently, “I know how to make a good decision. I need to take time to weigh all alternatives and analyze all aspects of the problem carefully before jumping to the solution. I simply do not have the time to do careful analysis so I use a lot of gut instinct to make decisions.”
Instinct and gut are not necessarily bad ingredients to use in decision-making. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells us that much of what we think of as “gut” is really the accumulation of years of experience that has resulted in an almost unconscious database of expertise that feeds our gut instincts. True experts know the right way to do things with an amazing accuracy by tapping this well spring of past knowledge.
Other researchers like Russo and Shoemaker (see sidebar) warn us that deciding from the gut can be risky due to our hidden biases and assumptions which they refer to as framing. They attribute the success of gut decisions more to luck and external factors than to the quality of the instinct.
Since leaders can’t reduce the volume of decisions they face nor can they create more hours in the day, what is left to try and improve on the quality of their decisions? I would suggest that incremental improvements can be made by examining the process one uses for decision-making and identifying ways to do it better. Some ideas that I’ve seen work for leaders:
- Establish real and accurate timeframes. Critical decisions are often paired with highly emotional issues. The emotional fervor around leadership decisions often results in everything being needed by yesterday. For every decision, question deadlines to determine the true timing of the action needed. Look for the date when action or inaction will have an adverse impact on other functions or decisions. Use tangible impact to determine dates rather than emotional anxiety.
- Go wide, take a systems approach. Look at the decision in its broadest context. Identify any “unintended consequences” and build workarounds. Constantly look for ancillary stakeholders who will be impacted by your decision. Bring them into the decision-making process early to obtain buy in and input.
- Play chess and look three moves ahead. Leaders who think wide sometimes fail to think ahead. Ask, what are the impacts on this decision 30, 60 days out, one year, even 5 years? Forward thinking is an incredibly valuable leadership skill and a great way to test the longevity of a decision.
- Go deep, search for precedents. A corollary to forward thinking is thinking in the past. Have we ever seen this situation before? Made a similar decision? Look for the lessons learned from that decision that can be applied to the situation at hand.
- Learn from your decisions, keep a decision journal. At the end of every week, log all major decisions that were made that week. Note who had input to the decision and what data was analyzed. Note the degree that you believed your “gut” informed your decision. Record any pertinent information that will allow you to recall the process that led to the decision. Thirty days later, review your notes and determine if the decision resulted in the desired outcome. Did the decision need to be modified? Was it overturned by subsequent facts or events? Repeat your decision audit every quarter and then annually. Look for recurrent factors that produced sound decisions and those that caused the decision to be modified or revoked.
The ultimate result of any leader’s business decision is results. Every decision has a purpose or goal to positively impact business outcomes. Among the many measures and scorecards kept on business analytics, I would love to see one that measures the quality of a leader’s decisions. Did they achieve the desired result? Did they stay in place for the length of time needed to justify the thought and attention placed on them? Positive metrics around these two questions would be a great way to score a leader’s decision-making skills.