Leaderonomics: Decision Making Isn’t One Size Fits All - Michelle Gibbings

Making the right decision will lead to a great outcome as Michelle explains in this article published by Leaderonomics.com.

Many years ago, I worked for someone who based their entire decision-making framework on the catchphrase – ‘A quick decision’s a good decision’.

Sometimes this approach worked in their favour, and other times, it left them undone.

Decision-making is never one size fits all. It operates on a continuum based on the issue’s simple or complex nature and what’s known and unknown. Taking a fit for purpose approach, you then select the corresponding process, tools and mindset to ensure you get the best outcome.

What’s fit for purpose depends on:

  • the size, nature and complexity of the decision
  • the level of buy-in from stakeholders that’s needed
  • the number of people who hold pieces of information that are crucial to making an informed decision
  • what’s known or unknown, tested or untested and the level of risk and certainty of outcome
  • the speed with which you need to decide
  • the number of people impacted and scope of the impact
  • the consequence of the decision

In working this through, you’ll discover there are times to go on instinct. There are times when using a deliberate step-by-step instructive process aids decision making. And lastly, there are times when the situation is so ambiguous and uncertain that you need adaptive insight.

I summarise it like this:

Decision making


(a) Instinct-based decisions
We make instinct-based decisions all the time. There are two parts to this – patterned behaviour and gut decisions.

Over time, you develop patterns of deciding and these form into default decision making. How it works is when you need to make a decision, you decide (and often without a lot of thought) the way you always do. Using heuristic processing (a mental shortcut), your brain quickly sizes up the situation and says, ‘A-ha. I’ve done this before and, in this situation, this is what I need to do’. In this way, you are going with the flow and how you feel. You aren’t thinking deeply.

As well, you have your gut, which can be a potent decision tool in certain circumstances. If your gut tells you that something doesn’t feel right, it’s often true. There is a connection between your gut and your brain.

To highly analytical people, all of this can sound counter-intuitive. However, for high-consequence decisions, your body will let you know how you feel. This approach isn’t about ignoring assumptions and blind spots (and those heuristics), which can lead to bad decisions. Instead, it requires you to be conscious of how a decision makes you feel and check what’s driving the feeling and its validity. Are you reacting or wisely responding?

Some decisions can be made quickly and instinctually, while others need to be slower and more deliberate.

(b) Instructive based decisions
For more complex decisions that require thought, analysis, consultation and reflection, it is often helpful to map out the steps you can take. With an instructive decision, it is easy to identify the cause and effect. Plus, while there may be multiple solutions, they are readily identifiable.

A standard problem-solving process for a decision of this type may involve the following eight steps:

  1. Define the problem – Get clear on the issue you are trying to solve and the decision to be made. Identify who needs to be involved and who is accountable for making the decision.
  2. Gather data – Gather information on the problem by talking to people, listening to their ideas, and researching. Be particularly open to listening to different opinions and to people who hold contrary views.
  3. Reflect on options – Sort, synthesise and analyse the information. Take the time to understand the possibilities and the corresponding benefits, examining from multiple perspectives. Rank the impacts and benefits based on your created decision criteria. Determine what you want to discard, alter or retain. The best way forward might be a blend of ideas and concepts. Depending on the complexity of the problem, you may do this step multiple times.
  4. Analyse alternatives – Building on earlier work, challenge yourself to develop additional options and consider any bias entering the decision process.
  5. Identify trade-offs – With every decision comes a decision not to do something else or take an alternate course. Make sure those trade-offs are clearly articulated and understood.
  6. Decide the approach – Check your decision criteria to ensure it’s still valid, and then use it to assess and prioritise the best course of action. This helps ensure you make a conscious decision aware of the risks (both upside and downside) and consequences of the decision. Run the criteria against the primary options.
  7. Implement the decision – Take the necessary steps to implement and execute on the agreed course of action, being clear on milestones and points of progress.
  8. Examine the outcome and assess – Monitor progress towards the expected goals and organisational benefits. Based on this assessment, adjust the implementation path if required.

(c) Insightful decisions
Insightful decisions are the most challenging type. In today’s uncertain, inter-connected, ever-changing and ambiguous world, they are more common. However, because they are hard to solve, it can be easy to fall into the trap of using a linear problem-solving process and seeking an easy answer, when sadly they won’t help.

Decisions of this nature arise when there are many variables, some of which are known and unknown. Some of which are easy to identify, whilst others are not obvious. It’s a world of connections and multiple causal relationships and possibilities.

Solving problems of this nature takes time and deliberate focus. It requires those involved to adopt an expansive and adaptive mindset and accept they don’t have all the answers.

It also means the decision-making process is not a linear approach. Instead, it’s a systems-based approach that requires a high level of analysis, rigorous thinking and the application of insight and deep decision-making techniques. It also often involves using external experts to provide input and data and help guide the leadership team’s decision-making.

As American Neuroscientist David Eagleman said: “What you learn from a life in science is the vastness of our ignorance“.

This comment isn’t to discourage you from uncovering what you don’t know. Quite the contrary. It recognises there is much for all of us to learn, and the only way to discover that new learning is to seek it out.

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