Making the Right Decisions

What Keeps You Awake at Night?

Making the Right Decisions

Every time you make the hard, correct decision you become a bit more courageous, and every time you make the easy, wrong decision you become a bit more cowardly. If you are CEO, these choices will lead to a courageous or cowardly company.

Ben Horowitz

How often do we second guess the decisions we make?

Depending upon our track record and the results we have seen from them it could be rarely or it could be often. Or, if we are in uncharted territory, we may be quite uncomfortable with making or decision or worrying about the outcome until the final results are in.

If we are uncomfortable with the decisions we have or are about to make, this could be a nagging problem that leads to what keeps us awake at night.

If our history of making decisions is not a good one, it is time to evaluate what is going wrong and how we can improve on what we decide and the outcomes we have experienced. To do so we should:

Determine if we are allowing our biases to cloud our judgement.

Too often we use our predisposition to slant our judgement regarding what decision to make or action to take. When we do, we may not be considering other options or possible outcomes based on the actions we will take.

While we certainly all have prejudices, we need to weigh these against the facts we are facing and while we may have to do something that while we would prefer not to, it is the right decision and therefore we should take it.

An example would be having two candidates for a job. One is a close friend who we would love to succeed and the job could be a big step towards allowing them to do so. The other candidate is a stranger to us, but that person’s credentials are far stronger than our friend’s and that person would be a better fit for the job at hand.

While we realize this, we think with our heart and how we are helping a friend who will be put off if we do not give them the job. So we select them only to have them do poorly. Our bias towards a friend versus competency caused us to make a bad decision.

Consider all aspects of a decision and its possible outcomes before we take action.

There are times when we make decisions without looking at all of the aspects and potential ramifications. While we shouldn’t take forever to make a decision, we should allow appropriate time to get enough facts and other people’s thoughts and opinions before weighing everything and making a final decision.

This may be a lot of work. While some decisions can be made quickly, others may take some time to get enough facts. Notice I didn’t say all of the facts. In most instances we will never have all of the facts, but such is life. At some point we must decide that we have enough to make a good decision. And then we move forward.

Otherwise we may get caught in the “paralysis by analysis syndrome” where we wait for just one more piece of information, followed by another and another, resulting in a decision either being too late or never being made.

But if we make decisions with little or no facts (Kind of a knee jerk decision process) we will probably not have a good record when it comes to making decisions.

Evaluate what went right or wrong based on our decision and how we could do better in the future.

I teach a class on Project Management. One of the things I talk about is doing a project post mortem, where at the completion of the project, the manager gets the team together to review the good and not so good aspects of the project. From this review, the team learns about how to do things better for the next project.

The same should hold true regarding making decisions. Once a decision is made and the results of it are in, a review of it should be made. If things went well, great. Keep up the good work.

But if problems were encountered even if the end results were satisfactory, learn from the issues, problems, or mistakes so they are not repeated. This is a good practice that will pay ongoing dividends in the future.

So now that you have learned about why your decisions may not always be the best, what are you to do about it? I suggest the following:

Use Your Experience(s) as a Guide

When making a new decision, always look at what you did in the past. Include what decisions you and your colleagues faced and which share any salient characteristics with this one? Every decision is not unique and you can apply one experience to another. Wisdom comes from learning, generalizing, and then applying to the here and now.

Be a Skeptic

One of the learnings I had as an Industrial Engineering undergraduate was to be skeptical about all circumstances. In that way you are more likely to look at all aspects before taking action.

As long as there is doubt you can never be as certain as you would like to be. Embrace the unknown and realize that your thoughts could be wrong.

Don’t be afraid ask: “What if my choice is  wrong?” Test it against alternative decisions and if it still looks the best choice, go with it. But make sure you are thorough and honest about your evaluation.

Consider all of Your Options

The more options you have, the more likely you are to succeed. But, there’s a limit so don’t look for too many. Look at three or four for consideration.

Only one option or two is a dilemma. Not enough to choose from. Three to four gives you real options. Once you get to 10 choices, you’ll be more worried about excluding good options than about choosing good ones.

Get Other Points of View

Encourage rigorous debate and argument. Get your  team members to build a case for each option. Have the others find the flaws in each.

Spot whether the argument is about the data, how it is interpreted, or about people, or vision, or values. 

Bring outsiders into your decision-making. They can improve your decisions, by:

  • Being different, they think differently. They know less, and therefore ask the simple questions you have ignored.
  • Difference creates a distinct point of view and new insights. They can apply their own experiences and maybe offer creative alternatives.
  • They are objective, and therefore will care more about the decision than about egos and relationships.

Understand the Potential Outcome(s) of Your Decision

Explore all of the background information you can regarding your potential decision. The more you do, the more reliable your judgment can be.

If you rely on scant information, you run the risk of using a bias. Which data was included and what was left out? What alternative analysis is available?

Unless you do a thorough evaluation and analysis, things will be missed. Important things that could have led to an entirely different decision.

Listen Rather than Talk

Do not dominate any decision discussion. Let others do that and focus on listening to what they are saying. As soon you offer your opinion, you may and probably will influence everything that follows. You then  compromise the chance to hear other points of view.

Prevent your experts from stating their opinions at the start. Have all information presented in a neutral way, and ask the non-experts to react to what they have heard.

People don’t like to be seen as changing their minds. The longer you wait before stating opinions, the more chance you have of getting people’s real thoughts before they are overly or unduly influenced by others What you want are all possibilities. If you don’t handle this correctly that is exactly what you won’t get.

Once you have gone through this process, you are better informed and able to make a good decision.

That doesn’t mean that you still may not have a problem or problems once the decision is finalized. But by following these steps you can reduce the chances that the decision you made was a bad or poor one.

And part of decision making is to allow for problems and issues and to develop plans in case something does go wrong. If it does, you are prepared for it and can act.

By doing these things, you should be more confident in your decision making ability. We all make mistakes. After all, we are fallible creatures. The idea is to minimize these and not repeat them. Do that and you have one less thing that will Keep You Awake at Night.

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