Winning Decisions: Getting it Right the First Time

WinningDecisions AprMay2014bookBy J. Edward Russo & Paul J.H. Schoemaker

Leaders’ decisions drive action in their organizations.  When decisions are delayed by an overwhelmed leader, we call it a bottle-neck. Work comes to a stop until someone says yes, no, go forward, go back.  Decision-making is so ubiquitous, so part of the fabric of daily action, that few take the time to analyze the decision-making process for efficiency and effectiveness.

Common wisdom tells us that decisions are based on a mixture of information, intuition, common sense and adequate levels of expertise.  This recipe may have been successful in past decades but the business climate faced by leaders today makes this formula paltry and inadequate.  Most businesses today exist in a climate of information overload, rapid speed, and cut-throat competition; mistakes made by top leaders can have devastating effects on the bottom line within minutes of their execution.  Combine this with the rate of change and past experiences yield lessons of dwindling value over a short time period.

The title Winning Decisions caught my eye when I was searching for new answers to the leadership decision-making dilemma.  Russo and Schoemaker, both long-time veterans of the business consulting and academic fields, have given us a useful primer on the decision-making process.  The book is anchored by a simple yet effective model for making decisions based on a four step process:

  1. Framing.  Determine the viewpoint from which the leader looks at the issue and sets parameters for which aspects of the situation they consider important and those that are not.
  2. Gathering Intelligence.  Research the known facts and options and produce a reasonable evaluation of the unknowables to determine the degree of uncertainty.
  3. Coming to Conclusions.  Use a systematic approach to make accurate choices of the outcome.
  4. Learn from Experience.  Use past discussions to continually improve on skills.

Russo and Schoemaker describe this process as a framework, not a rigid set of rules.  That said, the first 3 steps are required, skipping one will greatly affect the quality of the decision.  The first 2 steps trigger expansive thinking and cause us to generate various options, challenge assumptions and build knowledge.  The last 2 steps utilize convergent thinking to narrow options and to gather lessons learned in the process.

The structure of the book parallels the 4 step model, with a chapter devoted to each step.  The general principles and practices for each step are described, followed by case examples of each step in action.  Each chapter ends with a section “Decision-making under Fire” which contains tips on how to adapt the tools and processes when timeframes are tight.

Russo and Schoemaker approach decision-making in a very logical and systematic manner.  The authors admit that their approach is strictly cognitive and based on current behavioral decision research.  Although they do not directly address social or political aspects of decisions in organizations, the focus placed on framing the problem can be used to minimize social or personality pitfalls.

From my perspective, the most valuable step of the model is the last one, learning from the experience.  Debriefing critical decisions, especially those that did not achieve the desired outcome, is an indispensable way of building a repertoire of best practices.  Russo and Schoemaker have included in an appendix guidelines for conducting decision audits that include excellent questions to use to evaluate decisions.

Winning Decisions is now part of my leadership library. I recommend that any leader who wants to improve on the quality of his or her decisions spend some time learning the tools and practices outlined in this book.