Deconstructing decision-making: 11 recommendations to improve how you and your colleagues decide together
Wise and smart decisions bring your ideas to life and improve the actions that follow. Decision-making requires acumen that technical aptitude alone will not guarantee. Organizational professionals who seek to make good decisions must be able to answer these questions and more: What are the big-picture considerations? Are we framing the decision optimally? Do we have the right people involved? Are we incorporating essential facts? What do we do if we become stuck? Who should make the decision and how?
Here are 11 decision-making components, along with recommendations:
- Understand the context and the big picture. Surrounding every decision is a set of considerations—organizational and departmental strategies, external conditions, internal capacity, and more. Even small decisions are shaped and affected by a larger context. Smart decision-makers look up from the issue at hand, and look around to see what’s happening and what may happen.
Recommendation: Become skilled in asking strategic questions even before you commence the process of decision-making, so you orient any decisions to what’s most important.
- Frame the question you’re addressing. The old adage “Ask a different question, get a different answer” is true in organizational decision-making: How you frame a decision sets the trajectory of your thinking and influences the outcomes and consequences. Good decision-makers are excellent at framing the question or questions the decision is meant to address, including who will be affected by it. This is one of the most important elements of decision-making.
Recommendation: Practice decision framing with less consequential decisions first, and then make framing a required exercise in all important decisions.
- Clarify the intention of your decision. Some decisions focus on advancing the execution of work, and will have outcomes and measures to match. Other decisions direct actions that are experimental, such as saying yes to a pilot program where the desired outcomes may be more about learning than performance. Early on, establish your intention regarding the decision you will make.
Recommendation: Add a step to your decision-making process to clarify the intention of your decision, and communicate the intention to all relevant parties.
- Determine who will make the decision and how. Confusion over decision rights and decision processes can undermine how well the decision proceeds. Who will be involved in the decision? Will the senior-most leader make the decision unilaterally? Will this be a group decision, made by consensus? Or will you use a different approach? It’s best to determine early who has decision rights and how the decision will be made, so participants know their roles.
Recommendation: Become familiar with different decision processes. Then, clarify and communicate who will make a decision and how it will be made, as early as possible.
- Know and use the facts. Establish a firm foundation for any decisions by gathering, organizing, analyzing, and applying relevant facts. Doing so will inform the best path forward and make decisions more defensible than other methods, such as deciding by intuition. It takes skill and commitment to develop aptitude in becoming a fact-based decision-maker, however.
Recommendation: Incorporate fact gathering and analysis into your decision-making processes, recognizing that doing so will require additional time.
- Generate options. With prior steps completed, decision-makers can engage in the creative act of imagining different options to achieve the desired goals. This is an opportunity to move beyond habitual ways of thinking. With this component, remember who will be affected by the decision, and ensure that your options take them into account. Generate more or fewer options based on the situation and its urgency.
Recommendation: Build aptitude in generating options by running practice sessions regarding less consequential decisions, and then use the skill with real, consequential decisions.
- Weigh pros and cons of each option. Many decision-makers do this intuitively or quickly, but this activity merits more consideration and rigor. Apply insights from the earlier components—especially the context of your decision, the decision frame, your desired intentions, and the facts—to help you evaluate each option.
Recommendation: Establish a process to weigh pros and cons of decisions, adjusting the process to suit your needs—consequential decisions will benefit from more detailed evaluation than less consequential ones.
- Make the decision. Having weighed the pros and cons of your options, turn your attention to the best option. Then, using whatever decision process you determined in component 4, make the decision. If you have completed earlier components, the decision process should be straightforward, because you’ve laid the groundwork thoroughly.
Recommendation: Practice making decisions after using all the components that precede it; and as you feel more confident, standardize this method.
- Communicate the decision. This is a vital, often overlooked, final step. Until the decision is communicated to all affected parties, it cannot be enacted sufficiently. A smart decision-maker is deliberate and thoughtful here, tailoring messages, and their sequencing and timing, to suit the needs of specific audiences.
Recommendation: Develop standard practices to communicate decisions effectively, quickly, and efficiently.
Two bonus components you can apply as needed
- Consider scenarios to inform decision-making. Scenarios are “What if?” fabrications that describe what could happen, depending on different circumstances. If your decision is consequential, then it can be instructive to create multiple scenarios about the situation you face. Depending on what happens, you’ll be better equipped to make responsive decisions because of your preparations.
Recommendation: Develop collective skill in creating scenarios that can be useful to future decisions.
- Navigate impasses that may emerge in your decision processes. In some situations—especially regarding high-stakes decisions with passionate advocates for different options—you and your colleagues may reach an impasse. Smart, wise decision-makers anticipate this possibility and develop a method to work through impasses constructively.
Recommendation: Learn a protocol to address impasses that you can apply as needed.
Decision-making has many components, each of which benefits from careful attention and deliberate skill-building. The investment is worth it: When you make better decisions, you will be more confident in your choices; the actions that follow will be smarter; and you will make more worthwhile contributions to organizational priorities.
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