How do I make better decisions?

by Sam on August 31, 2010

In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.




~Theodore Roosevelt


One-Minute Answer:  Each day presents you with choices. Many are routine, others familiar, and sometimes even the new ones bear minor risk or consequences.


But then there are those decisions that really matter. They call for supreme wisdom. They keep you awake at night. A good outcome significantly advances your fortunes; a bad one sets you back, perhaps beyond recovery.


If you have choices to make similar those on the list below, the five-minute answer beneath them will sound as though it was composed for you.


§         What actions will best achieve the strategic goals of our team?

§         Do I challenge my boss on this issue or fold my cards?

§         Should I accept that job offer or stay here?

§         Will I handle that assignment myself or ask others for help?

§         Who can I trust?

§         What improvement should I champion on my team?

§         Do I need a leadership coach?

§         Who should my succession candidate be?

§         Do I fire this difficult employee or create a performance improvement plan?

§         Which core values will best guide our team?


Five-Minute Answer:  The application of just a few of these tips will markedly increase the goodness of your decision making.


1.    Keep your mind nimble.  When Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind” he was advising us to be continually in a state of decision-making readiness. Keep informed in your specialty. Expect the need for an urgent decision at any time. Exercise your mind with reading, puzzles, and challenging conversation.

2.    Define the problem.  What problem are you seeking to solve and what problem are you not addressing? What do you hope to gain with your choice? What’s the likely outcome of doing nothing?

3.    Decide at the right time.  Don’t act prematurely—certainly not when there’s a chance that an imminent event will eliminate the need for action. When you do act, be rested, feeling well, and non-emotional—especially don’t be angry. Neither wait until the last minute so that you’re rushed. And never shop for groceries when you’re hungry.

4.    Gather the right amount of information.  The 80/20 rule says that once you’ve collected the best 20% of the data bearing on any decision you have an 80% chance of making a great choice. The effort and time required to gather more input—and you’ll never get all of it—may keep you from other activities whose importance exceeds the comparative gain brought to your decision. Only when the cost of failure is high and deadlines allow, should you perform more exhaustive research.

5.    Consider “ready, fire, steer”.  In reference to his war-time decisions, President Roosevelt said, “One thing is sure. We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the moment… if it doesn’t turn out right, we can modify it as we go along.” In today’s quick-change world, the most important work we do in decision making may be the re-routing that begins the minute we choose a path.

6.    Take the right amount of time.  When golfer Phil Mikelson approaches the ball before a drive or a putt, he measures carefully and takes several practice stokes. By contrast, Tiger Woods swings away with seemingly little forethought. Both players succeed. Some people sleep on their decisions; others act before the sun goes down. Decide at a speed that works for you.

7.    Own your world view.  You have a set of values that differ from almost everyone else’s. Come to grips with your predispositions. Acknowledge them and admit to how they influence you. This equips you to overcome your bias when feedback from others or self-awareness indicates that it may be leading you to unwarranted conclusions.

8.    Avoid negativity.  According to Winston Churchill, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Great decision makers are possibility thinkers. Reject negative people and negative thinking—both will influence you to aim too low and expect too little.

9.    Consult others.  When Peter Drucker opined that management is too big of a job for one man, he spoke to the need to involve others in decision making. Often the best ones to include are least experienced in the subject. The most creative thoughts are often had by those on the periphery of a discipline. They don’t know enough to say, “We tried that before” or “That won’t work.” Their unfettered ideas range between “crazy” and “brilliant.”

10.  Retire to your imagination space.  Where and when are you at your creative best? In the shower? On your back deck? At church? In the woods? On the beach? Over coffee? In the evening? When no one else is in the office?

11.  Ask “Why not?”  Question the way things have always been done. Don’t be a victim of the past. Challenge the sacred assumptions that you and your colleagues bring to the table. (“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”)

12.  Think strategically.  Identify clearly the future you want and ask yourself if the course you’re on will make that happen. Visualize the path you’re about to take, picture its impact on tomorrow, and go no further until you’re convinced that your destination will be reached.

13.  Settle on a decision-making process.  Here’s a possible one to use: (1) specify the desired outcome, (2) perform a force-field analysis by brainstorming all the enablers acting to support that outcome and all the barriers standing in its way, (3) choose the most powerful enablers and barriers, (4) take the action or actions that best leverage the dominant enablers and overcome the most daunting barriers.

14.  Experiment.  Test new ideas on a small scale where failure won’t be so costly. For example, before you activate a new performance appraisal form, let a handful of managers use it with their people and get feedback from everyone on its effectiveness.

15.  Throw rocks.  Once you or your team concludes on a direction to take, ask colleagues or team members to play devil’s advocate by “throwing rocks” at the conclusion. Have each person think of why the new direction might fail. Reject decisions that fail to survive the bombardment; adopt those that look just as good as before the rocks were hurled.

16.  Change course when that’s the thing to do.  Once new information comes to light that decries the wisdom of a decision, great leaders have no problem saying, “I was wrong” and then reversing direction. When needed they apologize.

17.  Learn from your mistakes.  You won’t always get it right the first time. Go to school on your worst decisions. Say to yourself, “I just learned how not to…” and act as though you did.


Breakthrough!  First, find the prescriptions on this list that you already practice to the fullest. Congratulate yourself and take responsibility for encouraging and teaching others to adopt them. Next, admit to the three least present in your thought process and apply them to your next crucial deliberation.

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