Decisions, decisions, decisions
How to improve your decision making skills

Decisions…..decision making is one area that crops up time and time again during my coaching sessions with clients.

Often decision making is focused on whether to change jobs or indeed careers, to deciding when to retire or to develop strategies to handle difficult conversations or manage difficult people.

It’s the one area that seems to stump many of us yet in reality we make decisions every single day, from deciding what to wear to the office to what to eat for dinner that night, or who to contact with regard to discussing a new proposal…the list is endless. Decisions can be simple or more complex depending on the circumstances.

Most decisions we actually don’t give much thought to typically because they are routine! Others however, are more challenging and require more thought. When coaching I encourage my client to consider the following:

• Uncertainty: many of the facts may be unknown;
• Complexity: there are often many, interrelated factors to consider;
• High-risk consequences: the impact of the decision could be significant;
• Alternatives: there may be a number of options, each with its own set of risks and consequences, and;
• Interpersonal issues: you need to consider how different people will react.

So, once all of the above have been considered I work with my clients to develop a systematic approach for decision making.

The Approach

Many of my clients hold responsible positions in well-known organisations and are making decisions every day, whether they realise it or not. They make good decisions and can often explain how they got from A to B very succinctly, yet something will happen where they will begin to doubt their ability to make a decision, let alone a good one!

Let’s take Ian. Ian, is a senior manager in a statutory organisation. He has years of experience, is held in high regard and is passionate about his area of work. Six months’ ago he had to deal with a very difficult situation at work which resulted in the dismissal of a member of his team. Ian was very troubled by this, and began to question his own judgment and decision making including had he over-looked things and missed opportunities.

In one session, Ian disclosed that he had not been sleeping well and the whole episode was starting to affect his mental well-being. We started by reflecting on the following seven steps:

1. Operating environment;
2. Explore the situation in detail;
3. What other options are available;
4. Explore the options;
5. Select the best option;
6. Devise and evaluate each action, and;
7. Decide how the decision can be communicated.

Let’s look at each of these steps in detail.

Step 1: The Operating Environment

Decisions involving others are often complex, so by starting with an analysis of the operating environment is always a useful starting point. It is often tempting to overlook this step and dive straight into options however, by considering the work context and the people you may be reliant on to actually implement a decision is time well spent. Sometimes it may be necessary to conduct a Stakeholder Analysis; especially when working in a group scenario.

Yet, even this can have risks and it is worth bearing in mind that even if you have conducted a thorough Stakeholder Analysis, group think can creep in. So, what do I mean by group think? Group think is the process in which bad decisions are made by a group because its members do not want to express opinions, suggest new ideas, etc. that others may disagree with:

“Most of us thought the product wouldn’t sell, but nobody told the boss – that’s the danger of group think.”

The Stepladder Technique is a good tool to use here as it introduces more and more people to the discussion gradually, while ensuring that everyone gets heard.

Step 2: Explore the Situation in Detail

It is essential to fully understand the situation. It could be that your objective can be approached in isolation, but typically it’s more likely that there are a number of interrelated factors to consider. Changes made in one team, for example, could have a domino effect on another team which would negate the benefit of the changes. Here, you could try Root Cause Analysis:

Step 3: What Other Options are Available

The more diverse the options you can generate to explore, the better your final decision is likely to be. At first this may seem as though you are over-complicating things, but the more options you generate the deeper you will dig and analyse. It may be useful here to use a variety of creative thinking techniques to help you think outside the box and come up with some truly creative and innovative solutions.

The most common approach is brainstorming. It’s easy to do, and requires only a piece of paper and a pen to capture thoughts and ideas. It can be done as an individual activity or a group activity. Ideas at first may seem quirky but the more open-minded you can be the more likely you will be to find a unique solution.

You can still involve others, in particular those who might be affected by your decision. Here you could try the Reframing Matrix which uses the 4Ps (Product, Planning, Potential, and People) as a way to gather different perspectives. The Perceptual Positions technique is also a great tool as it encourages participants to adopt different functional perspectives (for example, having a finance person speak from the viewpoint of a HR manager).

Step 4: Explore the Options

Now, here is the next challenge; do you have a good range of realistic alternatives? If so, it is now time to consider and evaluate the feasibility, risks and implications of each one.
It is true to say that in reality almost every decision involves some degree of risk. To explore the options you need to consider objectively the risks of every option you have generated and what steps can you take to mitigate the said risks. Once you have done this you would then need to prioritise the risks, using a Risk Impact/Probability Chart, so you can focus on the ones that are most likely to occur.

Or you could evaluate your options by considering the potential consequences of each one. Here the ORAPAPA tool might help you to evaluate a decision’s consequences by looking at the alternatives from seven different perspectives. Or you could use a Futures Wheel to brainstorm “unexpected” consequences that could arise from your decision.

Step 5: Select the Best Option

So, once you have evaluated the alternatives, the next step is to make your decision. Clearly this is easy if one particular option is evidently better than the rest however, it is more than probable that you will have several competing options. If so, there are a variety of tools that will help you decide between them.

Where you have several criteria consider using the Decision Matrix Analysis to compare them robustly. Or, you may want to determine their relative importance, if so, use the Paired Comparison Analysis to decide which ones should carry the most weight in your decision. Decision Trees are also commonly used when choosing between different financial options.

Sometimes, we can find ourselves in a position where the decision criteria is subjective, and yet you still need to gain a consensus, here Multi-Voting can help you reach an agreement.

Often we can find ourselves in a position where anonymity is important, or decision-makers dislike one another, or there is a tendency for certain individuals to monopolise the process; here it may be worth considering the Delphi Technique to reach a fair and impartial decision. This uses cycles of anonymous, written discussion and argument, managed by a facilitator.

Step 6: Devise and evaluate each action

Often by the time we have reached this stage it is all too tempting to plough on and implement whatever option we have concluded is most fit for purpose. Yet, it is essential to pause and take stock, after all the benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing!

Your final decision will only be as good as the time and effort you have given to researching the facts and evidence to support your decision. Here, it is important to recognise that unconscious bias can play a part; read our blog:

Unconscious Bias: Horns and Halos

Reflect on your preliminary findings with your key stakeholders to enable them to identify any gaps or omissions or make recommendations, and support your conclusions. Your own intuition is important here as well, so don’t simply dismiss it as a gut reaction as often we rely on past experiences to inform recent decisions.

Step 7: Decide how the decision can be communicated

Now, comes probably the hardest part. Once you have made your decision, you will need to think about how you can communicate it to everyone affected in an engaging and inspiring way.
Tell people how you arrived at your decision. The more information you provide about risks and projected benefits, the more likely people will be to support your decision.
If people point out any omissions etc., have the humility to explore their views further and review your plans appropriately – it’s much better to do this now at little or no cost rather than having to do it expensively (and embarrassingly) if your plans have failed.

So, what happened to Ian…..Ian and I explored his self-doubts over a couple of sessions, including whether he was self-sabotaging himself in the process. We explored the decisions he had made in the past he was proud of, and considered how he could use these as affirmation points to restore his self-confidence. Twelve months down the line Ian says he feels “back to his usual self but has learnt a lot from this process including not feeling under pressure to make decisions.”