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January 5, 2016

Decisions, Decisions...

Bruce Murray

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Google searching "leaders are decisive" resulted in 33.6 million hits. I must have leadership potential because I make hundreds of decisions every day. Many of my decisions are made in the bat of an eye. It was cloudy, so I grabbed a jacket on my way out the door.

"Want to go to New York to celebrate your birthday this weekend?" Eilish Bouchier was asked. "Oh!" she thought. "How fluffy and fun it is to make decisions." "Sure, let's go!" she said. And then she thought of committing the cash to book the flight and hotel, and of the time required to make a dozen calls to reschedule her earlier plans.

"It's just a dream," she concluded, with a forlorn look, before she came to some startling conclusions. "A decision is just a moment in time. A commitment requires action. And goddammit, it mostly requires repeated action. It needs staying power, grit, to get through obstacles and my own resistance."

Curiously, some forms of commitment come without any decision-making moment. The National Center for Biotechnology Information says these "sliding decisions [are] are events and transitions [such as] beginning a sexual relationship, moving in together, or becoming pregnant." In a business context, some office slang can slide into becoming an iconic motto, or letting the discipline of a well-liked subordinate can slide into problems with others. While sliding into decisions increases constraints, they often come without meaningful dedication to sustain them.

True commitment is necessary to bring many big decisions to fruition, but it can be a double-edged sword. We cross the Rubicon; once committed, our mindset is to never look back. When evidence should call our decision into question, Kelly and Milkman find that we suffer from cognitive dissonance and then double-down on dubious decisions by escalating our commitment.

Why? Confirmation bias causes us to ignore most negative evidence, and we also exaggerate the weight of any positives that we find. Ultimately, with our self-esteem at stake, we simply can't bear the pain of being wrong.

CEO Rich Baek gave me two great pieces of advice. Citing an Agile Development principle, he told me, "Don’t decide anything until you have to." To avoid paralyzing indecisiveness, he reminded me that absolute certainty is almost never possible, so, "Do your due diligence and trust your gut."

Decisiveness is admired, but there is a line beyond which the "leader" designation gives way to bossy, autocratic or some phrases that my editor will not print. I use Mind Tools' Vroom-Yetton-Jago Decision Model to determine if I should rely solely on myself. "The higher the quality of the decision needed, the more you should involve others." Also, when your decision requires buy-in from others, increase their participation levels. Finally, when time allows, "Get others involved as a useful team-building exercise."

At times, I can't shake the feeling that a decision might go wrong. If the fallout is likely to be highly political, then I confess to involving others just to protect my posterior. I don't endorse this behavior, but I am hardly the only one who makes this shameful decision.

Encouraging collaborative decisions feeds a leader's reputation for being open-minded, a trait that is appreciated. Avoid the trap of groupthink by getting advice from a wide variety of sources. Don't be too quick to voice your disagreement and never personalize your criticism. Thank those who give you valuable advice – publicly, if possible. With collaboration you are more likely to come up with some out-of-the-box brilliance.

The details of decision making are complicated, but the processing steps are self-evident. Assess the situation. Establish your goals. Identify options. Analyze them and choose the best option. Act. Evaluate the results and then go back to step one by reassessing the new situation.

Here are my final thoughts. In many ways we are defined by the decisions we make. Be aware of the consciousness with which you make them. Don't finalize your important decision making until it is necessary. Once you commit, be careful not to blind yourself to signs that the decision requires adjustment.

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4 comments on “Decisions, Decisions...”

  1. Whenever making decisions, I have a two pronged approach. I will do the research and look at the facts, but I also pay very close attention to my gut feel' about something. I know it sounds funny, but I can literally feel in my body how I should make a decision. It's not fail safe, but I'm spot on with my decisions most of the time.
    I also have a philosophy that I don't moan about things. Where I am now is the sum total of many prior decisions - if I don't like where I am I need to change the type of decisions I make.

    1. Good idea to look at the two prongs you're using. Keep a log on which side produces the best results. Glad your personality fosters the "don't moan" approach.

  2. Making robust decisions without team’s knowledge will actually trouble the project. In such cases, there is a resistance from resources. Rather it is feasible to engage resources individually. Taking major decisions collectively will prove to be more cohesive and resources gain a better sense of individual accountability.

    1. Hi Soumya, Good point about taking major decisions collectively and include everyone involved. That way they buy into the process and the changes, rather than being imposed upon them without any say in the matter!

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