Last year our article on how to make sound decisions was the second most popular article on our website and was accessed nearly 500 times, even though it was originally published in 2011. Given the popularity of this topic, we thought we would follow up with some added insights around decision making. The starting point is that in order to make good decisions, you need to make time to reflect. If you are making decisions on the fly without the time to give it some thought, you will either shoot from the hip or simply repeat the decisions you made last time. This strategy is perfectly adequate for everyday decisions like ‘What should I have for lunch today?’, but is a recipe for creating unnecessary pain when it comes to decisions that will affect your future and people around you.
Once you have accepted that the decision you need to make would benefit from investing time and mental effort, there are 4 key questions you will need to consider:
- What are the purpose and frame of the decision?
- What are the (potential) impacts of this decision?
- How am I feeling about this decision?
- When is the best time to make this decision?
The purpose and frame of the decision will typically have a disproportionate impact on how you make the decision and what decision you are going to make. This is because our brain is trying to help us make decisions quickly and in line with our values and beliefs. So we will happily disregard evidence that does not fit with our belief system and justify this through framing the decision in a manner consistent with our beliefs. There was a great example in The Age newspaper last week: ‘Selling our forests is the best way to preserve them‘. The frame used for the decision (Should we sell our heritage listed Tasmanian forests?) is conservation. Not only that, it is the ‘best way’ to conserve them, in line with Tony Abbott’s claim that forestry workers are the ‘ultimate conservationists’. By setting the frame you can not only distract from the (undesirable) impacts of the decision (logging of heritage listed forests), but you can also disguise the true purpose (win votes, undermine the Tasmanian forestry agreement). Obviously, there are plenty of similar scenarios in organisational decision making, so make sure you give thought to how the decision is framed and whether or not its true purpose should be disguised or stated.
The next question to consider is what (likely) impacts the decision is going to have on you and others. This is often much less obvious than it may sound and requires a lot of careful thought and discussion with affected parties. All decisions have intended and unintended consequences and the reason we create processes for ‘stakeholder consultation’ is usually because we are interested in discovering what the unintended consequences might be. In the workplace this would typically involve consulting your team, your peers and managers who could be affected by the decision. This does not mean that you need to find a way of ‘appeasing’ all stakeholders or achieve a consensus decision. It simply means that you understand what the impacts are going to be, how different stakeholders are going to react to a decision that they don’t like and what mitigation plans you may want to put in place to minimise risks. Consulting people impacted by the decision is a much smarter approach than ‘mind reading’ – assuming you know what the other parties want. We are generally terribly bad at mind reading and way too many decisions have been made (or not made) based on mistaken assumptions.
The third question you should ask is simply ‘How do I feel about this decision?’ – consult your gut feeling and see what comes back in response. Over time we acquire an increasing ability to reconcile our emotional and rational minds and to see larger patterns, an ability that supposedly does not peak until our sixties. In short, we tend to get better at making ‘gut decisions’ as we get older. This was the issue we explored in the 2011 article we mentioned at the beginning of this post.
The final consideration is about timing and time. The most common patterns are that we either tend to make decisions too fast, or too slow. Spending just the right amount of time on a decision based on the purpose, impacts and feelings involved is a matter of judgement that takes into account your own propensity to either move too quick or to procrastinate. This means that you will need to periodically ask yourself if you have spend enough time now on exploring the other three questions and if you are ready to make a considered decision right now. A great question to ask would be ‘If I spent more time collecting information, consulting others or thinking about this issue, could I realistically make a better decision?’. Phrasing the question this way works both for procrastinators or those inclined to make hasty calls.
We put together a simple 1-page checklist for these four considerations some time ago, you can download your copy here.