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Tips to support your decision-making

Decisions, decisions, decisions! The average person makes around 30,000 of them every day. While many of these are mundane and require little thought, senior leaders are often required to make very important decisions, quickly, with little information or expertise. When I first entered senior leadership I found this a real struggle. After a lot of angst and quite a few mistakes I decided to put some much-needed structure around my decision-making.  Twenty years later and I’m once again reflecting on this experience with lots of the people I now coach struggling with the same thing. 

New insights into diversity & inclusion provide an additional lens through which to look at decisions.  We now understand that complex problems really benefit from a diverse group of people coming together in a safe environment to share their views and build on each other’s points.  

And that’s great right? But given the time pressures leaders constantly work under, I often hear: “I simply don’t have the time to slow down and have a wide-ranging conversation about every decision I make”.  And that’s true.  The trick is to understand the types of decisions you can make quickly on your own, and the ones that would benefit from more information and different ways of thinking. 

One of my favourite models, the Cynefin Framework, really resonates with me here.  It was developed to help leaders understand challenges and make decisions in context.  By referencing the different ‘domains’ we operate in, we’re able to understand what is complex and what is not. This helps to mitigate things like overthinking simple decisions or trying to fit complex issues into standard solutions.  (Source: www.thecynefin.co).

Leveraging this knowledge and my years of experience as a leader and coach, below are my top tips for decision-making:

1. Clarify the decisions you can make

First, it’s critical to understand the decision-making scope of your role: what can you decide on yourself and what do you need someone’s approval for?  Can you influence decisions made by others that impact you, your team, or your part of the organisation; and if so, how?

Action: speak to your leader to clarify what decisions you can make.  Seek out documents to help, such as your organisation’s delegated authority matrix and other decision-making frameworks.

2. Consider the environment and range of outcomes

Before making decisions it’s helpful to consider your environment. Are you working in a predictable environment or an uncertain one?  What range of outcomes are possible: can you determine the outcome with reasonably high predictability, or could a variety of results be expected?

Action: think about the broader environment and the range of outcomes for each of your decisions.  A narrow range of outcomes in a more predictable space may enable you to make a faster call, but a wider range of outcomes with less predictability may benefit from a different approach.

3. Categorise your decisions, then apply some filters

Identify a range of categories for your decisions.  A simple model I use has two categories: straightforward or complex. Straightforward decisions may be in more predictable environments with clearer outcomes, while complex decisions may be at the other end of the scale.  Under each category, identify some filters to measure your decisions against.  E.g. have you made this decision before, do you have standard policies and procedures to support your decision or lower the risk, are you basing your decisions on a lot of facts, can it easily be reversed? 

Action: write down your decision-making categories and their key attributes, using them to filter your decisions against.  Your decisions may not always fall into an obvious category, but this process will trigger useful questions to ask yourself, especially when you’re under pressure.

4. Ask for the time you need

Unless you’re in a life and death situation there’s usually the ability to pause and think for at least a few minutes, if not longer, before making a call.  This could make all the difference to the outcome of your decision and how comfortable you feel about making it.

Action: clarify how long you have to make the decision. Don’t be afraid to ask for the time you need, even if it’s just a quick pause.  This is particularly important if you’re stressed or operating under an emotional impulse.

5. Take your learnings and update

Take time to reflect on your decisions, even those that felt simple.  How did you feel about making them?  What were the outcomes?  What would you do differently next time?  As leaders, most of our decisions are never “black or white” so experience can be a great teacher.

Action: once a decision is made, consider your learnings and how they might help shape future ones.  Use this reflection as an opportunity to update and fine-tune your categories and criteria for next time.

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