More people are making more decisions—and are being forced to make them faster—in an increasingly unpredictable and less forgiving environment. Whatever their role or organization, most professionals have to make a decision “now”—followed by another decision “now,” followed by yet another.
The terrain for today’s decision-maker is a minefield in which any misstep can provoke a devastating explosion. In this sped-up world, you’re likely to have exactly one shot to get a decision right, not three. And if you get it wrong, you have less time to correct mistakes and reestablish credibility. John Austin, PhD. provides an introduction to critical thinking and decision-making in Thinking Fast, a one-week online course designed to help participants develop and implement effective decision-making skills.
This skill is vital for early-career professionals preparing for their first management role and the Thinking Fast course is a staple of our Emerging Leader’s Program.
Focus On The Process, Not The Outcome
The fact that most decision-makers focus on outcomes isn’t surprising. Most organizations reward or penalize people based on the outcomes of their decisions. This organizational preference for outcomes exists in part because assessing the results of decisions is usually easier and more objective than assessing decision-making processes. If you’re only looking at results, performance is black and white – your team either delivered or it didn’t.
Additionally, many people assume that good outcomes imply good decision-making processes and that poor outcomes signal the opposite. Consider how you would respond to an executive asking the following question: “I can promote one of three people. One has a track record of 50% mistakes; the second, 25% mistakes; and the third, no mistakes. Who do you think I will promote?” While we may immediately think that the correct answer would be the person with no mistakes, we should instead respond by asking, “How can an experienced executive get anything done without making mistakes? The only way to have a clean track record is to do nothing.”
In this example, focusing on processes would allow the executive to find the most worthy candidate. We should all strive to be pragmatic and be pleased when we see good results; however, throughout this course, we’ll argue that your best hope for a favorable decision outcome is a sound decision process. That’s because we believe that decision-makers should focus on what they can actually control.
To better understand the process vs. outcome dilemma, consider the three things that tell us where good results come from:
- Deciding: The thinking and decision-making process
- Doing: Implementation and other factors under your control
- Chance: Uncontrollable factors and luck
You can’t control the factors that are up to chance, though you can seek to have greater influence on the factors that are under your control. Further, the outcome of most decisions depends on both the quality of the decision process and a mixture of implementation and chance that can be difficult to sort through. A good process, even with excellent implementation, can’t always guarantee a good outcome – bad luck happens to everyone. However, it is clear that you have the best chance of a positive outcome if you have a good decision-making process and good implementation.
Understand The Four Stages Of Effective Decision Making
In real life, of course, the decision-making process is not quite as linear—or as distinct—as these four stages suggest. In fact, information gathered during the “intelligence gathering” stage may drive you to go back and reframe your decision. Further, more complex problems (e.g. relocating your business) may involve a series of smaller decisions, each of which may involve several passes through the decision-making process.
The four-stage process is a framework, not a rigid set of rules. Follow the paths suggested here only as far as you feel is required to make a decision. Be aware, however, that you can’t skip the first three stages – they’ll happen with or without you, whether intended or not, and if you skimp on the stage most relevant to the issue, you’ll pay the price. You can either manage these three stages from the beginning or deal with the consequences later.
It is important to divide the decision-making process into four stages that provide the backbone of almost any decision-making process. Those four stages are:
- Framing: Framing determines the viewpoint from which decision-makers look at the issue and allows them to prioritize by determining which aspects of the situation are relevant and which are not.
- Gathering Intelligence: Intelligence gatherers must determine which facts are knowable and assess “unknowables” to enable decision making in the face of uncertainty. It’s important to avoid pitfalls such as overconfidence in current beliefs and biased information seeking.
- Coming to Conclusions: Good framing and intelligence don’t guarantee a good decision. A systematic approach to making your conclusion will lead to more accurate choices—and it usually does so far more efficiently than hours spent in unorganized thinking. This is particularly true within group settings.
- Learning from Experience: Only by systematically learning from the results of past decisions can decision-makers continually improve their long-term results. Further, if learning begins when a decision is first implemented, early refinements to the decision or implementation plan can be made that could mean the difference between success or failure.
Deciding How to Decide
The four major decision stages take up almost all of a good decision process. Expert decision-makers, however, know they must devote a portion of their time to making choices about the decision process itself – choices that are likely to determine the character of the entire effort. In this preliminary stage, you’ll need to evaluate the nature of the decision, decide what it is that you need to decide, identify which stages of the process are most important, evaluate how much time to devote to each stage, and devise a plan for managing the decision. We call this preliminary assessment the “metadecision.” The importance of the metadecision was well-expressed by American educator John Dewey, who explained, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.”