As a young manager, I had the chance to do some work with Robert Shaw, a gruff yet charming engineer. When it had looked like Montreal's Expo 67 wouldn't be built on time, he was sent in and, through his management prowess, got the job done. A few years later, I was entranced by the effortless way he made decisions.
His attitude was that if a decision is clear – one choice obviously outweighs the other – you should decide quickly and move on. And if the decision isn't clear, because two or more options seem equally attractive, you probably will never know which is best, so again you should make the decision quickly and move on.
That lesson stuck with me and I have passed it on to others whenever the discussion turns to difficulties with decision-making – a topic that never comes up formally in meetings in organizations, since we're not accustomed to admitting vulnerability. But it will lead to fascinating conversations when you raise it with fellow managers because it touches so close to the bone.
I have been helped in my own decision-making when I adopt the first law in Charles Foster's 30 Laws of Great Decision-Making. It's particularly valuable for those of us who are too analytical and keep trying to dredge up all the factors that might make a decision go awry. He asks us to focus instead on the most important thing in the decision – and to give it extra weight in deciding. "Of all the things you're juggling and balancing, there's one factor, one consideration, one goal, one issue, one something that is truly most important," he says.
More to the point, it's generally quite apparent what that factor is, but instead of focusing on it we immerse ourselves in the quicksand of considering every conceivable factor and giving them all roughly equal weight.
Dr. Foster has a second law that is valuable for me because I happen to be a pessimist (or, to be charitable, a realist). He asks us to succumb to a dose of idealism, and imagine when considering a decision all the good things that can happen.
Most of us have been trained through the education system to be critical and defensive in evaluating issues. It's a way of avoiding mistakes. But Dr. Foster notes that "you can also make a bad decision because you fail to allow for the possibility of something wonderful happening. And wonderful things happen all the time."
That points to a third, important point: The decision you make may be less important than what you make of that decision – how you implement it. That's helpful for us analysis-to-paralysis types.
I also think it's important to highlight time. I have never felt bad spending a long time mulling over a decision, as long as I make it by the desired time. Indeed, too often, perhaps wrongly, that's a guide, and so my flash decisions – make it right now, because somebody wants an immediate answer – may be worse than the times I worry I am pondering too long. "You call it procrastination, I call it thinking," Hollywood's Aaron Sorkin has said.
Of course, often we don't really know when the decision must be made by or the artificial deadline we have set is dragging us down, in a world of speed. Jacques Nasser, former CEO of Ford, told managers that when they had 80 per cent of the information they needed, they should act on it. In too many companies, people unconsciously seek 150 per cent.
On timing, consultant Eric McNulty, in strategy+business, says the easier a decision will be to repeal the sooner you can act. He also highlights repercussions: The broader the impact, the more carefully you should consider the decision.
Consultant Tom Koulopoulos suggests on the Innovation Excellence blog that you ask these questions: Are you doing what you will be proud of having done when you look back? Does it reflect your values? Have you accepted the consequences of failure?
He also asks whether you have flipped a coin, since often as it's in the air you hope for what you now recognize is your desired outcome.
Decision-making can be difficult for managers. But those ideas might make it easier for you.
- Am I the only one whose heart drops when told by someone in a PowerPoint world, “I’ll send you a deck”? Am I the only one who can’t make sense of a deck until I hear the talk which it frames, and view “sending a deck” as a lazy pretense of communication?
- Stop domesticating your top performers, warns trainer Dan Rockwell. Remarkable people are obsessed, often too detail-oriented or planning too much for others’ tastes. Protect and encourage them.
- Do you have “hurry sickness”? It’s a malaise in which a person feels chronically short of time, and so tries to perform every task very fast and gets flustered by any delay.