Mastering decision making is a necessary skill for any good leader. But making decisions is often more challenging than we think it might be. Let’s look at a decision making framework for leaders to make the process more effective.
The Importance Of Making Decisions Consciously
It’s estimated that the average adult makes more than 35,000 decisions per day. With so many decisions to make in just one day, it’s no wonder many of the techniques and approaches we use have largely become unconscious.
But as you progress in your career and face more complex environments, different personalities in your teams and stakeholders, and encounter more important decisions it might be time to become more conscious and purposeful in your approach to decision making.
Perhaps it’s time to polish up some of your tools or maybe you need a new, more thoughtful approach to how you define and make decisions. The goal of this article is to provide those tools.
First, let’s examine some things that can get in the way or take us off course and how to manage them.
We’ll begin with a definition to make sure we’re on the same page.
Definition of Decision Making
Decision making is just as it sounds – the action or process of making important decisions.
And to get a little more precise, let’s look at the goal of making a decision, especially when it comes to business.
When we’re making a decision, the objective is to choose the option that gains you individually, your team, your customer, or organisation the most ground in achieving your goals, while taking into account how much you’re willing to risk.
Or sometimes, if there aren’t any good options – or good enough options – your objective is just to choose the option that will cause you to lose the least amount of ground.
What Makes Decision-Making Challenging?
First, let’s look at some of the things that get in the way of decision making, problem framing, and creative solutions.
Of course, every situation is unique. But here are some common obstacles you may encounter.
- Jumping to conclusions too quickly
- Making assumptions
- Focusing too heavily on the details
- Conversely, focusing too much on only the big picture
- Mindset (unwilling to expand the problem space)
- Fear of failure
- Unconscious biases and mental errors
One of the main things I see that gets in the way of effective decision-making with leaders and teams is jumping into a problem too quickly without properly defining the problem state we are trying to solve.
As a result, conclusions are formed too soon. Time is often a challenge for us but moving in to too quickly to make decisions can have an adverse effect on the impact we hope to have. I also see many leaders overusing their ‘bias for action’ muscle.
Let’s look at some of the obstacles listed above more closely.
Focusing on the details, you’ll often hear your leaders say, “I need you to talk and think about the big picture because you’re too far into the details.”
But inversely, some of the challenge is focusing on the big picture too much and not considering the detail. So the art with decision making is to zoom in and out on the information.
Another common challenge is missing information. Perhaps because you need to make a decision quickly and don’t grab the information. Or it could be through bias and not actually asking the right questions.
Ego is common. And ego is expressed through feeling uncomfortable asking additional questions, not wanting to look stupid, or feeling as though we’re putting too much pressure on someone so we don’t actually interrogate it enough.
A true critical thinker would never sit and just accept a piece of information without asking a bit deeper to avoid making assumptions. It’s a large human error. Far too often we make assumptions about a problem when we need to consider it from all angles.
And one of the biggest obstacles we all face is our mindset and beliefs about a problem. We’ve all had that moment when we’re sure we know best.
An example might be an annoying client asking about a particular situation. We already know what the answer potentially should be, so our mindset gets in the way and actually closes things down.
For many of us, fear of failure, having an impact on others, making the wrong decision, or that someone else won’t like our decision can be an obstacle.
And finally, unconscious biases and mental errors are a big piece.
3 Categories of Problems
Before we get into how to overcome these challenges, I want to provide a bit of context for this decision making and problem space.
Problems and challenges or decisions we need to make can sit into 3 different buckets:
- Simple – a clear problem with a clear solution
- Complex – the problem and solution are not clear but can be understood with time
- Wicked – the problem and solution are not understood and keep shifting when we try to define the
This is from Mo Fox’s work on Design Thinking and Wicked Problems. I’d recommend you dig into her great thinking on Wicked Problems if you’re interested.
The problems in the Simple bucket are easy to solve. They’ve usually got a clear solution and they’re predictable. They’re straightforward and obvious.
They’re usually something for which we have instructions. So, baking a cake is a simple problem. We’ve got a set of instructions and we can work our way through it.
Some little things might go off track but we know how to do it.
Complex problems resist solving. These are things like building a skyscraper or factory or even reorganising the kitchen.
They’re like simple problems because they’re objective but they’re usually technical, mechanical, or engineering in flavour.
Complex problems have hidden root causes and we can use reductive thinking to solve them.
The most challenging problems are wicked. They resist defining. In fact, even trying to define a wicked problem is a wicked problem in itself.
They are characterised by ambiguity and chaos and the landscape keeps shifting.
For example, the COVID pandemic is a wicked problem. And another, closer to home example, would be an organisational restructure.
These are usually where people’s beliefs and behaviours sit, where you’ve got to change something that’s quite substantial. And the solution used in one organisation is not necessarily going to fit your organisation because you’ve got a different culture, etc.
In this article, we’re going to focus on the middle one – Complex problems.
Decision Making: A Simple Maturity Model
Another thing to consider is this simple maturity model for decision making and thinking and where you fall within it in your organisation (or in a specific area within your organisation. For example, you might be a Level 3 in a technical area and Level 1 in marketing)
- Level 1 is someone who may contribute ideas or information to decision making, often not in a proactive way. But is not the one making the decision.
- Level 2 is a person who is much more proactive and may actually facilitate a decision-making process. They also have to demonstrate their critical thinking and approach to a challenge.
- Level 3 – you are the decision-maker.
Wherever you currently fall within this model, consider how you can use the information in this article to help you more effectively participate and articulate your decision-making process when you do so.
Decision Making Framework
So now that we understand what decision making is all about and the obstacles we may run across, here is a simple framework you can use to make decisions in a more conscious way.
This is a model you can use very quickly. Whether the decision you need to make is simple or a more complex problem, you can still go through these steps.
- Define – define the challenge or decision to be made.
- Diagnosis – to understand the problem and its causes, gather data, consult with a range of relevant experts, and use critical thinking skills.
- Options – Define the options and the potential consequences or effects of the available options. Identify the recommendation(s) to be presented.
- Decide – The decision-maker will review the recommendation(s) based on the information gathered in the first three steps and make the decision.
- Assign, Act, Communicate – Once the decision has been determined, roles and responsibilities should be assigned. The decision must be acted on and communicated.
- Measure & Review – The efficacy of the solution should be measured and analysed. Has it solved the problem? If the problem recurs or worsens over time, then we must reassess previously discarded solutions.
Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.
Begin by defining the challenge or decision that needs to be made. Your goal is to understand the outcomes, the constraints, the timeframes, who are the stakeholders, and also choose your decision-making style.
As Albert Einstein famously said,
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
So, this is where you can actually validate which route to take with your style as a leader, team lead, or project lead. I would highly recommend you spend time practising this skill and slowing down the process of making a decision by ensuring you’ve defined the right problem to solve.
Second is the diagnosis. This is where you start to bring in some critical thinking tools. You want to understand the problem and its causes, gather data, consult with a range of experts, and then use some critical thinking tools.
Next, you go through the options.
Once you’ve broken it down into some key options, you need to think about the potential consequences or effects of those options. Identify the recommendations you will present – one or a few – and then pass it on to the person who is defined as the decision-maker.
They will then review your recommendations based on the information gathered in those three steps and make the decision.
This step is pretty straightforward. The decision-maker will review the data and options and make the decision.
Assign, Act, & Communicate
In this step, it’s about being clear about who will be responsible to take action on the decision that was made and then communicating that to the relevant people.
Measure & Review
In the final stage, you need to measure and review the results of the decision.
Once you have some results to review, this is where looking at the critical thinking tools you used to come up with the decision is key.
What was it out of that decision that created the effect that you saw? There will often be some hidden gems for you there.
It’s important to remember that your mindset impacts your thoughts and feelings, which then impact your behaviours and results.
You see, the mindset that you take with you into decision making and problem-solving is one of the most important elements you need to get right.
Your goal is to get into a mindset that is:
- Open and curious
- Flexible in considering alternatives and opinions
- Understanding the opinions of others
- Fair-minded in appraising reasoning
- Honesty in facing one’s own biases, prejudices or stereotypes
- Prudent in making judgments
- Willing to reconsider and revise views where honest reflection suggests that change is warranted
- Self-confident in one’s own ability to reason
- Open-minded regarding divergent worldviews
Have you ever been in a situation where you thought to yourself, “This person is going on about their own opinion. Why can’t they see my point of view?”
But that thought in itself actually blocks you from being a great critical thinker. So catch yourself in those moments where you’re closing down and not listening to the opinions of others.
Beliefs That Impact Decision Making
Beliefs are another thing that impacts your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. So being aware of your own beliefs is key. Here are some examples of the types of beliefs that can get in your way.
- Confirmation Bias: Our tendency to notice, interpret, and seek out information that confirms or strengthens our existing beliefs
- Disconfirmation Bias: Confirmation bias’s sibling. Our tendency to apply a higher, more critical standard to information that contradicts our beliefs than to information that confirms them.
- Overconfidence: Overestimating our skills, intellect, or talent, interfering with our ability to make decisions depending on such estimates.
- Availability Bias: The tendency to overestimate the frequency of events that are easy to recall because they are vivid or because we’ve experienced them a lot.
- Recency Bias: Believing that recent events are more likely to occur than they actually are.
- Illusion of Control: Overestimating our ability to control events. In other words, to underestimate the influence of luck.
Confirmation bias and Recency bias, in particular, have a big impact on how we go about solving problems. Because you either notice or seek out information that’s going to conform to what you already know or believe.
Being aware of that tendency and being able to break that down is really important.
With overconfidence, it’s critical that you are able to sit humbly and think about what you don’t know and be open to considering different ways to do things.
Recap: The Process of Decision-Making
There are 6 simple steps in this decision-making process:
- Assign, Act & Communicate
DAI – Stakeholder and Roles
It’s important to be clear about who the final decision-maker will be. So if there are multiple people involved, take a few moments to identify who will be the:
D = Decision-Maker. Who has that ownership and will be responsible for the final decision?
A = Adviser (A or a). There may also be advisors, some who are proactive with their advice (A) and others who are asked for some input (a).
I = Informed. Those who need to be informed of the outcome.
Making The Final Decision: A Simple Model
When it comes time to actually make the decision, try this simple Vroom-Yetton-Jago model, which is based on situational leadership styles.
It’s useful to help identify the right management and leadership style based on the current situation to make the right decisions in an organisation. There are 7 questions to work through:
- Is the quality of the decision important?
- Is getting team commitment for the decision important?
- Do you have enough information to make the decision on your own?
- Is the problem well structured?
- If you made the decision yourself, would the team support it?
- Does the team share organisational goals?
- Is conflict among the team over the decision likely?
There are a number of different styles of decision-making. Here are some of the most common styles.
- Autocratic (A1) – the leader makes a decision based on information that is readily available.
- Autocratic (A2) – The leader collects information from team members, then makes the decision alone based on the information collected. The decision may or may not be shared with the group.
- Consultative (C1) – The leader consults with team members individually, asking for their ideas and suggestions. The team does not meet together. The leader makes a decision, based on individual input.
- Consultative (C2) – The team meets together and the leader seeks opinions and suggestions. The leader makes the decision alone based on the input from the group.
- Collaborative (G2) – The team meeting together to discuss and brainstorm. The team collectively makes the decision. The leader ensures that everybody agrees on the decision.
As you progress in your career as a leader, you will move through a range of problems to solve. From very simple to very complex.
So it’s helpful to have a range of tools available to help you decide:
- If you need to involve others in your decision-making process, and if so, whom.
- And what kind of leadership style is the right approach for each situation.
As you review this information, is there something in particular that stands out as the most valuable insight for you? Think about how you can use these tools to help you in your current position as well as how they might help you in the future.
Effective decision-making is a critical leadership skill you will need to exercise on a regular basis. So take the time to become confident in your process.
Learn more about how we can provide personalised coaching or training in this area here.