Making decisions and implementing changes are in the job description for leaders and managers. Mistakes can often be corrected, but being indecisive and not being able to make decisions are business killers.
Being a great leader is not always about making the best decisions, but simply having the ability and courage to make a decision, implement it, and then take responsibility for it. Without making decisions nothing will get done, while businesses that have decision-makers at the helm are more productive and produce better results.
The great philosopher (and a pretty decent hockey player, too), Wayne Gretzky, once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The same can be said for being a leader and not making decisions: 100% of the decisions you don’t make are wrong. They’re wrong because making no decision is paralyzing for a business and the people you manage. Success can’t be realized without making decisions, especially in our digital age of quickly evolving business and economic development.
You can't make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.Michelle Obama
It’s ok to feel anxious, concerned, or even scared to make a decision. It’s natural for humans to fear change and, in fact, we’re hard-wired to be that way. However, what is often thought to be fear is really just a natural preservation instinct.
Take the case of the ostrich. Popular legend has it that the ostrich buries its head in the sand because it’s frightened or threatened, but that’s not true. Ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand (duh, they would suffocate). What they do is dig holes to bury their eggs and then, throughout the day, they put their heads in the hole to turn the eggs. A natural preservation instinct at work.
The same example applies when we are faced with making a decision. What many interpret as fear and reluctance to make a decision is really just the human brain trying to preserve the status quo. Your brain wants to operate under the principle, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is but the world as it will be.Isaac Asimov
Status quo bias tells us a lot about our, partially, predetermined instincts. Status quo bias is the innate desire to keep things the same and maintain the status quo. Many people prefer that things stay the same. In fact, studies have shown that there is more regret for taking an action that leads to a negative outcome than there is for inaction leading to a bad outcome. It’s also been shown that the mental anguish from losing $100 is much more extreme than the joy received from finding $100. Simply put, change is hard for humans, and making a decision can cause a great deal of anxiety.
However, sooner or later, we all have to make a decision. It could be deciding what to have for dinner tonight, whether to quit your job, deciding on your employees’ dress code, or changing your sales strategy. Whatever the case, a degree of decisiveness will be called for. Being decisive doesn’t mean making a rash decision or not taking into consideration what friends, family, colleagues, and coworkers think. It means listening to the pros and cons, brainstorming, or doing whatever your decision-making process requires, and then making a decision and supporting it.
Again and again, the impossible problem is solved when we see that the problem is only a tough decision waiting to be made.Robert H. Schuller
Many people think being able to make a decision has something to do with the personality of a person, rather than just making a crucial choice to decide something. Successful leaders know that their personality can’t deter them from making vital decisions about their business and that they can vary their approach depending on the situation. The best leaders and decision-makers know it’s ok to adjust their style, and they often develop their own personal models for making decisions.
There are many ways to arrive at a decision. The decision-making process should change according to the problem that needs to be solved. Different situations demand different responses and it’s not uncommon for a mixture of decision-making models to be used when the problem requires a variety of approaches. I’d wager that it could be just as difficult to pick a model for decision-making as it is making the decision itself sometimes. With that in mind, I’ve split some of the best decision-making models into three categories; textbook models, top leaders’ and organizational approaches, and down-to-earth models.
On an important decision, one rarely has 100% of the information needed for a good decision no matter how much one spends or how long one waits. And, if one waits too long, he has a different problem and has to start all over.Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader
This method is the most effective when there is a clear best answer that everyone understands to solve a particular problem. The decision-makers’ insight and intuition are the most critical elements here. However, that intuition is based on the experience, expertise, and other information directly related to the decision-maker. Because little input is required from others, decisions using this model can be made quickly and without excess communication. These decisions can sometimes be made without getting all the relevant information and care should be taken to avoid the decision-maker simply trusting their gut.
For me, it is always important that I go through all the possible options for a decision.Angela Merkel
This is a versatile model to use when there is more than one right solution for a particular problem. It requires a great deal of information and data, along with advice from other people to reaffirm or refute the decision-makers’ own knowledge. On the downside, it takes a lot of time to use this model, and it can lead to ‘analysis paralysis’ if too much time is spent dwelling on the information.
Just think about it, deeply, and then forget it. An idea will jump in your face.Don Draper, Mad Men
As the name implies, this model is ideal when creative and unique solutions are required. It relies on the decision-makers’ creativity and the particular circumstances of a problem. In short, identify the problem, mentally immerse yourself in it, give yourself some time to absorb it, and trust that the solution will come to you. After it does, put the solution into action.
Teamwork is a strategic decision.Patrick Lencioni
This is used with a group by getting feedback from many people surrounding the decision-maker. It’s a thoughtful model that requires proactive communication. When using this model, it’s helpful to assign an individual or team to challenge the status quo so that decisions aren’t just made through groupthink.
Because the ideas and views of many people are being considered, the decision-maker needs to know their role as the final arbiter and make definite and decisive decisions. For the same reason, avoid getting lost in everybody’s opinion and don’t forget that the goal is to proactively find a solution.
Top leaders’ and organizational approaches
The circle of competence
You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don't do too many things wrong.Warren Buffet
Warren Buffet is one of the richest people in the world, and his wealth was entirely self-made. His model can be summed up in five words: focus on what you know. Buffet’s model stresses identifying your major strengths and making decisions that rely on them. Improving your weaknesses isn’t important. If you know what you do best and where your core strengths lie, you should use those factors to come up with the best solutions.
What’s best for you might not be what’s best for others, and that’s because your strengths are unique to you. What’s good for the goose isn’t always what’s good for the gander. A potential problem with this model is not correctly identifying your strengths or overestimating them.
The urgent-important matrix
I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.Dwight Eisenhower
Dwight Eisenhower saw the United States through some of the most turbulent times in American history. From being the supreme commander of the U.S. forces in World War II to being a major player at the beginning of the Cold War, Eisenhower was often at the forefront of decision-making. Maybe because of the positions he held, Eisenhower developed a matrix to help him make decisions based on their importance and urgency.
His model for decision-making is ideal for being more productive on a daily basis. It emphasizes prioritizing issues to help you determine how to handle them. In a nutshell, every decision gets classified as urgent and/or important. If it’s urgent and important, do it now. If it’s important, but not urgent, decide later or schedule a time to decide. If it’s urgent, but not important, delegate it to someone else. And finally, if it is neither urgent nor important, get rid of it. Disadvantages to the Eisenhower matrix include difficulties in correctly assigning urgent or important to a task and the unequal distribution of tasks.
Regret minimization framework
If you can make the decision with data, make the decision with data, but a lot of the most important decisions simply cannot be made with data.Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos is also one of the richest people in the world. As the founder, president, and CEO of Amazon, I’d imagine he’s faced more than his share of difficult decisions. It should come as no surprise that the decision-making model created by a visionary such as Bezos focuses on long-term thinking.
Basically, it entails changing your perspective by envisioning yourself at age 80 (or 100, if you’re already 80) and imagining what you would think of your decision then. It helps reduce some of the temporary confusion that surrounds your everyday routines and places emphasis on making a decision that you won’t regret later.
Indeed, as the name implies, the whole point is to reduce the regret you may have later in life based on the decision you are making now. While this model is a proven winner, it can still be difficult to gain the right perspective and truly capture what you might think far down the road.
The U.S. Marines’ rule of three
Improvise, Adapt, OvercomeUnofficial slogan of the U.S. Marines
Created in 1834, the Marines are one of America’s foremost fighting forces. The Marines emphasize decentralized management and bottom-up thinking, while also adhering to the rule of three. True to form, they also have three primary areas of responsibility when it comes to national defense.
Simply put, the rule of three means giving yourself only three tasks or goals to be concerned about and choosing from only three solutions to any given problem. To carry out the rule of three, the Marines follow a set of guiding principles. They are firm believers in hiring good people, crosstraining their leaders, and limiting the number of decision-makers. This is done so that subordinates or junior officers are able to take action and make decisions based on what the situation and desired outcome are.
They also follow the 70% solution. The 70% solution is a solution that isn’t perfect, but one that is close and, more importantly, can be made immediately. The thought being, a mediocre solution decided upon and carried out quickly has a chance of success, while being indecisive has no chance. They believe a good plan and taking the initiative stands a better chance of succeeding than doing nothing. When employing this strategy it’s important to not make a hasty decision and to gather as much information as possible before making a decision.
If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.Albert Einstein
The 10/10/10 rule
This rule is meant to focus on long-term thinking by considering long-term consequences. How will you feel about the decision you’ve made in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years from now? Making decisions that satisfy us in 10 minutes or 10 months later is relatively easy. However, considering how a decision will impact your business or life in 10 years and isn’t immediately appealing is much more difficult.
This is one we’ve all heard of before and for good reason. The idea has been around since the 16th century. Make a list of all the pros (arguments in favor of a decision) and cons (arguments against a decision) and weigh them against each other. Perhaps because it’s so simple, sometimes this is all you need to do to determine what the right decision is.
Can the decision you make now be reversed down the road? If it can, and the other consequences are minimal, make a decision, and go forward.
Occam’s razor or the Principle of Simplicity
Although Occam’s razor principle is pretty complex, the main point is easy to grasp. If you have two or more solutions that are equal, the simplest solution is usually the best one. Stephen Hawking, Isacc Newton, Aristotle, and Albert Einstein are all luminaries that applied simplicity to problem-solving.
Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.Peter F. Drucker
The above models will serve you well as a guide in the decision-making process. Still, there are some useful tips to keep in mind that will prove helpful, no matter which model you are using.
- Think about the big picture. This is a part of many of the models above, so it’s clearly important. Consider where your decision fits in the overall scheme of what you are trying to accomplish. Always keep that perspective in mind as you think about possible solutions, and don’t lose sight of your overall goals.
- Get advice, but also give advice. Imagine that one of your friends or colleagues came and asked you for help in making a decision for the very same problem you are trying to solve right now. What would you say to them? If it’s easy to imagine the advice you would give to someone else, perhaps the decision you need to make isn’t as difficult as you think.
- Take advantage of diversity. Get your information from a variety of sources, and ask as many different types of people as you can for their input. I mean this in every way possible. Forward-facing people, the back of the house, developers, customer service, women, men, minorities. Different strokes for different folks is true, and you’ll benefit by gathering different perspectives.
- Pay attention to the details, but not too much. You don’t want to dwell on the details to the point that inhibits making a decision. However, you don’t want to forget about them either. Discover the significant details, consider how relevant they are, and move on.
- To a certain degree, trust your instincts and intuition. That doesn’t mean to just go with your gut or with the first solution that pops into your head. If you’re in a position to make an impactful decision for your business, most likely you’ve made them before. Instincts and intuition aren’t just a feeling, they’re a hunch you get based on your experience, education, and professional knowledge. Those are valuable, so treat them as such.
- The 80/20, or Pareto rule is your friend. When it comes to decision-making, this rule states that focusing your efforts on 20% of your tasks will accomplish 80% of your goals. The trick is to isolate which tasks are the most critical and focus on them to yield the biggest results. Once you’ve determined which tasks deserve the most attention, maintain your focus on them, and don’t get sidetracked.
- Give yourself a deadline. Whether you need a quick turnaround deadline or one far into the future is for you to determine and based on the nature of the problem you are trying to solve. However, once you determine when the deadline should be and establish one, stick to it. Having a firm deadline will help move along the decision-making process and keep you from getting stuck in analysis paralysis.
- 37% and optimal stopping. Optimal stopping is simply knowing when you stop looking for solutions and when to start making decisions. It gets to the heart of the uncomfortable feeling many people have when worrying that there might be a better solution right around the corner, combined with the thought that we might lose an acceptable option that we’ve already considered. So when is the optimal time to stop? According to Algorithms to Live By, the answer is 37%. Meaning once you have seen 37% of the options or solutions available, a decision should be made if it’s better than all of the other options you’ve already seen. The authors state that if you make a decision then, you have the highest chance, or a 37% probability, of making the best choice and achieving success.
- Know the theory of constraints. Introduced by Eliyahu Goldratt in 1984, the theory of constraints focuses on identifying goals or solutions, but, more importantly, identifying what elements, or constraints, are impeding those solutions. Once those constraints are known, all your efforts should be put into eliminating those constraints, which will then give your goals and solutions a better chance of success.
In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.Theodore Roosevelt
Models and tips for decision-making are helpful to have when making decisions, but it’s also important to be aware of pitfalls and traps to avoid when you make decisions.
- Indecisiveness, as mentioned above, can be the straw that breaks a business’s back. Take the time you need to make a decision, but not so much that not making a decision is hurting your business.
- In the same vein, don’t be impulsive in your decision making. You want to trust your instincts and intuition, but with limitations. Make sure you have all the necessary data before you make a decision. Additionally, keep in mind that making decisions based on intuition should be reserved for those decision-makers that have a great deal of experience and expertise.
- Don’t wait until the last minute to make a decision. It’s important to give yourself a deadline, but don’t wait until your back is up against the wall to decide what to do. Doing so can inspire anxiety and panic and lead to a negative decision being made simply due to stress.
- Make sure you correctly identify the root problem. Sometimes it can be difficult to see the forest because of all the trees, and the same can be said for recognizing the main problem when there is a sea of difficulties in front of you. There’s no success to be had if you solve the wrong problem.
- When the problem-solving process starts, realize, at the very beginning, that the advice and information you receive might not be correct. Anchoring bias is relying too much on the information that already exists or the information you receive at the beginning. Vet your sources, use multiple sources of information, consider everything, but discard what isn’t accurate. Bad information leads to bad decisions.
- Whatever you decide, follow through. There’s no point in making a decision if you’re not going to implement it. Likewise, once you implement and commit to a decision, support it in every way. If you don’t give your solution the best possible chance to succeed, you’ll never know if it would have worked or not.
- Be aware of confirmation bias and overconfidence. In decision-making, confirmation bias is only seeing evidence in favor of a solution or decision you already thought was correct. Overconfidence, as we all know, is just thinking you couldn’t possibly be wrong, so you must be right. Guard yourself against these factors to make the best decision possible.
- Avoid hindsight bias like it’s the plague. Hindsight bias is being wrong about the results of a decision, but claiming you knew it was always going to end up that way, even though you previously supported the, now wrong, decision. It’s basically saying, “I told you so.” It’s entirely unhelpful and is a good way to generate resentment among employees and colleagues. Everybody knows hindsight is 20/20, and you don’t need to remind anybody of that fact.
- Know when the decision you’ve made is wrong and don’t dedicate any more resources to making it work. Give it time to work, but not too much. It’s called an escalation of commitment to pour more time and money into something that’s not going to work, and it’s a good way to make a bad problem worse.
The straight line, a respectable optical illusion which ruins many a man.Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Making decisions, whether in your personal life or business, isn’t easy. Nobody ever said it would be, but nobody often understands how hard it is to make business or organizational decisions until they find themselves in that particular situation. The consequences can be extreme and affect many people.
That’s why the above models, tips, and traps often seem so contradictory. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for every situation. Discretion and consideration are required to even determine what aids to use to make a decision, let alone the decision itself.
However, that’s what leaders and managers sign up for. While often going unnoticed and being unappreciated, their decisions shape and mold their organization and the people who earn their livelihood there. It can be nerve-racking to have to make a difficult decision, but it’s also admirable.
I’ve always believed that when you find yourself in the position of having to make a decision of consequence, it’s something to appreciate and respect. After all, would you rather make small decisions where the stakes don’t matter, or make important decisions that will have a significant impact on the immediate, if localized, future?
I think it’s an easy answer.
However difficult it might be to tell you exactly how to make decisions, it’s easy to sum it up. As Kenny Rogers once said, “Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Simple, right?
The Gambler (or leader or manager), indeed.