People: Decisions, how do you decide what to do?

Tips on making better decisions across the company – from the 2019 series of Threads discussions.

Discussion host: Peter Cain, change and growth Consultant at Anamosys


Much of management and leadership is about making decisions so we all need good ways to do this, be it decisions that we make alone, decisions that we empower others to make, or decisions that we make as a group.

The decisions to be made

Think of decision making as an Agile process. Make a decision but then move on. Don’t revisit the decision but do be prepared to make further decisions based on where things are now. If you need to, and to avoid drawn out prevarication, set yourself a time limit for making the decision.

Deciding between several options is one of the most difficult types of decision. Consider the cost / benefit of each option. Analyse each one and devise metrics that allow you to down select the choices into a decision that is binary.

Don’t let junior staff outsource their decision making to seniors. When asked for a decision, a senior should turn the question around, asking the junior for their own thoughts. Assisting this person through the process of making their own decision so that next time they don’t need to ask.

Democratic votes, and majority decisions by committee, are generally a poor way to make decisions. The only exception to this is when the outcome of a decision has little real consequence but the decision is controversial. An example might be choosing a product name for which there are strong opinions. Taking this sort of decision to a group allows those who feel strongly to get involved, and a democratic outcome is harder to challenge.

Making a decision as a group

While decision making by groups is often fraught, decision making in groups is not. There are two scenarios:

  • The decision maker forms a group to provide wider opinion and allow for debate. The decision maker will still make the decision alone and the group is there just to provide input. It this scenario it’s important the group understands that it’s role is only consultative.
  • A member of the group makes a ‘proposed’ decision and presents their decision to the group for validation. Presenting the decision requires that the decision maker fully understands and is able to communicate the argument. Presenting to the group allows for challenges to the decision, perhaps from alternative perspectives. The outcome is validation of the original ‘proposed’ decision (which was made by an individual), or it’s rejection. This may be followed by a further attempt at a different decision by the same person or by someone else.

In both cases it can be useful to provide the group with any background information for them to study before meeting to discuss the decision.

The answer you get to a decision question can depend greatly on the question that is asked. So if you are asking a group to decide, think carefully about the question, and in particular, avoid questions that provoke a negative response.

When decision making slows things down

Bear in mind the art of the possible. Making the right decision may be less important than making a decision that gets implemented. Sometimes it may be better to make a suboptimal decision that will make it to reality than to make a better decision that does not.

Learning, over hindsight

Hindsight is not a real thing. Look back at past decisions only to check whether there is something to learn from them that may improve future decisions. Do not to ruminate over ‘what ifs’. Comparing with alternative histories is impossible, as you will never know what would have really happened in those alternatives. You will tend to assume they played out well which will show the actual history in a bad light.

Documenting the groundwork and thinking

Write notes when you make decisions that are of any significance, more formal notes for the bigger decisions and those with significant consequences. You may need to go back and justify your decision, or you may want to learn from it, and a contemporaneous record will help greatly. Hand written notes in a log book are often all that is needed.

Written records of decisions can help smooth the transition when a new manager takes over and is inclined to revisit decisions made in the past.

Decision making in a crisis

Decision making in a crisis needs to be quick, it’s usually made on the basis of experience and gut feel, by one or certainly fewer people, and with limited or no research.

Crisis decision makers need to have plenty of experience and the right temperament to make quick decisions under pressure. Sometimes people with this latter quality are not the best at making, and carrying, day-to-day decisions. It’s useful to develop and practice both (different) types of decisions making skill.

Well run businesses rarely experience crises and this makes them less practiced at dealing with them when they do inevitably occur. Be aware of this shortcoming and try to find opportunities to practice, such as during team building activities. Keep a look out for crisis decision making temperament amongst your team members so that you know who to call upon when the need arises.

It’s always better to avoid crisis situations in the first place, by good planning and by careful and regular consideration of risk.

Communicating the new decision

Decision makers should always explain the process and reasons behind their decisions to those who will be affected.

Published by Andrew Gifford

Co-organiser of Threads South West. Founder/MD and people person at techfolk. Interested in the people aspects of running a progressive business.

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