Make Better Decisions. Please.

Decisions aren’t found under a rock. Decision-making is what makes us human. It’s why we have those big frontal lobes. (written in 2010)

Decision-making is the means by which we most directly attempt to shape our lives.

Some of these decisions we make consciously. While we may use different methods, the idea is that we give some thought to the problem we’re trying to solve, we consider at least two alternatives, we do some research, and we ultimately select a course of action and then spend our time, money, and energy to acquire or achieve the benefits we set out to capture.

Other decisions we might think of as “automatic” decision: We act without thought, usually response to stimulus. 

The first type of decision-making is a distinctly human domain:  Other species don’t have the same breadth of cognitive tools and therefore can’t be described as decision-makers unless we are to stretch the meaning beyond use.  All species do the second type.

Most of us are not as good at decision making as we think we are or would like to be. There are many reasons why this is true. 

While we are experienced decision makers, we are not necessarily skilled in the sense that we have not thought about and internalized processes that lead reliably to high quality choices.

  1. We are much more easily influenced than we care to admit: by people, by word choices, by events, and by our own emotions.
  2. We are not wired to make high quality decisions in modern industrialized, information-overloaded, choice-rich environments.  We are easily distracted, we struggle to make sense of too much stimulus, we perform poorly when we have too many choices (yet we often give ourselves too few), and we dislike making trade-offs.   
  3. We are wired to take mental short cuts.  It’s how we go through life without having to make decisions about everything that we need to do.  Those mental short cuts can and do work against us causing us to make low quality decisions (again, far more often than we want to believe).
  4. We adapt to our circumstances and are prone to revisionist thinking.  We quickly learn to live with the consequences and outcomes of our decisions and retrofit our stories so that we can be right.

If we want to live more powerfully, if we want to get more of what we want, we need to make different decisions.  We also need to learn how to bring some rigor and quality to how we make those decisions.

The other choice is to keep doing the same things over and over and hope that someone or something will come along and help us out.  This is called Magical Thinking.  If you think about it, Magical Thinking is a decision as well.  We don’t think it’s a useful one.

The interesting decisions in our lives are the kinds with long feedback loops.  What does that mean?  That we don’t get to know the result of our decision immediately or even soon after we make a choice.  It takes awhile, and the longer it takes, the more opportunity there is for random or unseen forces to interfere.

For example, when would you know if taking a night school class was a good decision?  The first day of class?  When you complete the class?  Next year?  When you get a promotion?

Think of these as “complex decisions.”  There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of things you don’t get to know before you decide. That’s the kind of decision that really shapes a person’s life.  That’s the kind we want to focus on here.

Stop Intending and Start Deciding

A decision is an intentional, irrevocable allocation of resource. A decision is more than an intention, though intentions are often assumed to be decisions. The distinction is important.

For example, you could decide you want to go to the movies tonight. But is that really a decision? Not until you go to the theater, buy the ticket, go inside and sit down. Up until you have made the commitment of your time and money, it is just an intention. Intentions are important.  Decisions are powerful.

Likewise, you could decide that you want to achieve some business goal like selling more to a client. Again, without a commitment of resources—more sales calls, price reductions, new product features, more resources, and so forth—the decision to sell more is only an intention, or maybe just a hope.

The key distinction is no resources are allocated with an intention. With a decision there are. This matters because intentions can change at a moment’s notice with little resource consequence.  And, they often do, creating confusion. 

Decisions that are really only intentions have the tendency to erode the confidence of others and chip away at the trust in the decision maker (or in this case, the decision intender). This leads to an unhappy cycle of cynicism and disenfranchising people who might otherwise be strong contributors to the process or critical implementers of your final choices.  Intentions that never become decisions also erode our confidence in ourselves.

Decide means to commit. It means you cut off other options. It means you allocate time, money, effort—something—to turn your intentions into action.

The commitment of resources drives action. It proves a clear signal to you and to others of a commitment to a decision. Resources can be monitored. People can be held accountable for using them to produce desired results.

To be effective, resource allocations must be irrevocable. They should not be subject to change. If that is not the case, the other alternatives have not been cut off. They linger, causing uncertainty and preventing a full focus on turning your decision into action. And as long as they linger as possibilities, you have not really made a decision.  Cutting off choices is one of the most things we do.

Does that mean that we are never to “change our minds” or choose different means, methods, or paths along the way?  Of course not.  But we will do well in those cases to consciously declare that we are now making a new decision and the reasons why that is the case.

Make Quality Decisions

Our brains are hard-wired to make decisions. But the fact that we’re built to make decisions doesn’t by itself make us good decision-makers. That takes discipline to do four things well.

  1. Realize when and why you need to make a decision.
  2. Declare the decision: Decide what the decision is, how you’ll work it, and who should be involved.
  3. Work the decision: Generate a complete set of alternatives, gather the information you need to understand the possibilities and probabilities, and ultimately make a choice that best fits your values.
  4. Commit resources and act.

A high-quality decision comes with a warrant: a guarantee. Not a guarantee of a certain outcome—remember this is the real world we’re talking about, and there are certain things that just aren’t knowable until after they happen—but a warranty that the process you used to arrive at a choice was a good one.

This level of confidence implies a process: a set of steps and rules that provide an assurance of thoroughness and rigor. This means breaking decisions down into component parts and doing one thing at a time.

Unless you’re unlike most people, it is your nature to do what you know how to do and to avoid what you don’t. That’s why you want a rational decision process: To defeat the natural behaviors and tendencies that can lead to low-quality decisions.

Without a process, you are likely to drag decisions into your comfort zone, handling “this one” in exactly the same way you handled “that one,” even though this one and that one may have little in common. Without an organizational decision process, that same “stimulus/response, stay in your comfort zone” dynamic can easily become the predominate driver of your organization’s culture and effectiveness. As a leader, you’re either doomed to inspecting every decision, or to hoping that people don’t decide to do something stupid while you’re not watching.

With a process or framework, you have the mechanism you need to warrant the quality of your own decisions. Perhaps more importantly, you also have a common language and set of mental models that makes conversations about decisions more efficient and effective. This common understanding of decision processes, criteria, and roles avoids many of the common organizational decision traps, allowing people in your organizations to spend their conversational energies on creating better alternatives and validating assumptions and ultimately warranting their own decisions.

Here’s the framework we use:

Frame the decision. What are you deciding and why? What shouldn’t you be deciding and why? What’s not in the box is as important as what is. Without a good definition of the problem or opportunity to be worked, there is no possibility that you'll reliably reach a high quality decision.  Think of this as describing the question you want to ask and answer.  Be precise.  Words matter.

Involve the Right People. If you're a single actor, or hold all the prerogatives of a dictator, this one is easy. It's just you. In other cases, you'll want to put some thought into declaring who needs to be involved in what steps of this decision. Too few, or miss some, and you risk the problems of rework, low adoption rate and poor buy in. Too many—too much inclusion—and you invite the possibility of an unnecessarily painful or drawn out decision process.  The key is you want different points of view, not just “yes people.”

Generate a complete set of choices. What is the right number of alternatives? That depends on how you’ve framed the question. Two terms are helpful in this regard.

“Collectively exhaustive” means that the alternatives you’re considering fill the frame: a rational observer would conclude that you’ve thought of everything that matters.

“Mutually exclusive” means that the alternatives are unique and different from each other: they’re not just restatements of the same choice.

Gather Information. High-quality decision-making requires not only knowing the facts but also understanding the limits of your knowledge. The most valuable insights are often found in exploring uncertainties and “disconfirming” information. You can wear yourself out gathering and analyzing information. What you want is insight that will help you judge the relative value of the alternatives you’re considering.

Name the Gorilla in the Room.  Ask and answer this question: “What could go wrong?”  In some cases you can build in protection against a “go wrong.”  That’s called hedging or insurance.  In other cases you can’t in which case you now get to decide how you feel about risk.

Make tradeoffs and Decide. Choices are what you can do, values are what you want.  Other words are “preferences” or “criteria.”  It is seldom the case that we can get all of what we want, particularly when others are involved.  Make a list of what’s important and evaluate your choices against that list.  Take action on the alternative that appears to give you the most of what you value with acceptable levels of risk.

How much energy should you put into each of these steps?  No more and no less than is necessary.  Keep in mind these points:

If you get the frame wrong, everything else will be wrong.  So spend time getting that right.

Divide and rule.  Do each step in order and independent of the other.  Mixing values and choices together is never a good idea.  Brainstorming and evaluating at the same time doesn’t work either.

Actively seek alternatives and alternative points of view.  You’re trying to engineer yourself around common decision traps.  Get help.

Own the Decisions You’ve Made. Honor Your Path

You didn’t get where you are by chance.  You made choices.  You don’t get these decisions back. And yes, stuff happened.  Stuff always happens.  Make a decision right now to stop looking for someone to blame: For anything.  Don’t blame yourself if you’re not living the life you want to live.  Don’t blame someone else.  It doesn’t help.  In fact it hurts.  Take ownership of the decisions you made.  They’re done.  You get to make new ones.

We find it useful to pull up from time to time and take stock of the important decisions we’ve made.  One reason is to learn.  This is actually more difficult then it seems.  We are wired to rewrite the past as we go; we have selective memories; we see what we want to see.  But that doesn’t mean that excavating decisions from the past can’t help us see more clearly the changes we might make today and in the future.

The second reason is to honor the decisions we’ve made.  They’re done.  Any second thoughts or regrets are pointless and not helpful.  Far better that your internal dialog sounds more like this: “I was the one that made that decision.  I did the best I could given what I knew at the time.  What happened after that happened.  Now I get to make a new decision. “

Kevin Hoffberg