Managers spend a lot of time making decisions, big and small. And we cannot be right all the time. But what we do want is to be able to make better decisions every time.
But how do we improve decision-making? We first need to know what “good” looks like.
The test of a “good” decision cannot be the outcome. If it were, we would never know if a decision is a good one until too late. And that could easily lead to decision-making paralysis.
Instead, consider a decision to be good if:
- the right person took it
- …with proper assessment of the best available evidence,
- …following a sound process.
There’s plenty to get our teeth into there, so let’s look at some specific advice to strengthen your decision-making process, and make better decisions.
Learn from Experience
The best decision-makers treat decision-making as a science. They record their decisions and the way they made them. They then follow that up with notes about how events turned out.
You may not choose to go that far for all your decisions. But, as a manager, good governance will demand that you do record all key project decisions. However, what you should do is occasionally take time to reflect on recent decisions, so you can learn from them. Give equal attention to those that turned out well, and those that did not.
When you need to make a new decision, always see what you can learn from the past. What decisions have you and your colleagues faced, that share one or more salient characteristics with this one? We tend to believe that every decision is unique, and so forget all of the value of experience. Wisdom comes from learning, generalizing, and then applying to the specific.
But do remember, that sometimes similar situations are different in one significant way. What is that difference? And also bear in mind that the reasons why a decision turned out to be beneficial or problematic may not be related to your decision-making process. What about implementation, other people’s interference, or random events?
There is always doubt: you can never be as certain as you would like. So, it’s important to stop pretending you have more certainty than you do have. Embrace the unknowns and admit you could be wrong.
I am not advocating decision paralysis. Instead, you should be testing each decision against multiple scenarios. Ask: “What if my choice were 100% wrong?” Think about how your decision might play out. Consider lots of things that could frustrate it. Test it against alternative decisions, against these scenarios and, if it still looks like the best choice, go with it.
Give Yourself Options
Here’s a simple relationship:
P(Success) = F(Number of options)
What that means is that the probability of success is a function of the number of options you consider.
In principle, the more options you have, the more likely you are to succeed. But, there’s a limit. You don’t want too many… beyond around three or four options, and you hit psychologist Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice. This means you’ll find it too hard to make your decision.
One option is no choice at all, two is a dilemma: yes or no? Three is a real choice. With 10 choices, you’ll be more worried about excluding good options than about choosing good ones.
Argue it Out
To make better decisions, encourage rigorous debate and argument. Set different team members the task of building a case for each option. Set others the task of finding flaws in the arguments.
Track the argument, so you fully understand each choice and see it from different perspectives. Spot whether the argument is about the data, how it is interpreted, or people, or vision, or values. Each of these has a different resolution… or none.
If it’s really important, appoint a “red team” to find arguments against your preferred view, to test it as hard as they can.
Understand the Context of Your Decision
Do your homework, and explore all of the background information you can get. The more you go back to the base information, the more reliable your judgment will be.
If, instead, you rely on bullet-point summaries, you run the risk of tacitly accepting a bias. Which data did the person who built the presentation choose? And what did they leave out? How did they interpret that data, to summarize it into short bullets? And what alternative analysis is available?
Look for different sources of information and different modes of gathering it.
- Talk to people
- Read reports
- Make visits
Try Carrying out Experiments
There is no better way to gather strong evidence to help with a decision, than a well-designed experiment. One experiment is worth a thousand theories and projections. Like, try solving the problem quickly, and see what happens.
An experiment is really a way of testing your decision with well-contained consequences. In the project world, we have pilots and prototypes.
They have another advantage for us. Stakeholders love them. They engage people and help us gather feedback and build support. And consider the pros and cons:
- The best case: the pilot is a huge success. You are confident about your decision and your stakeholders have a new enthusiasm.
- The worst case: the pilot is a huge failure. You are now confident in needing a new decision. You prevented a full-scale failure, and you can thank your stakeholders for helping you avert disaster. It’s time for a new pilot.
So, this is a win-win approach and one that is not common enough in the projects I’ve seen and heard about.
Trash Your Theory
It is easy to find evidence to support your favored course of action. Once you choose it, people will flock to back a winner. And confirmation bias will ensure you find more and more reasons why you are right.
The scientific way is to look for the one data point that will trash your theory. If that data point is repeatable, you will find yourself on the edge of a deeper understanding and, maybe, a step further away from a potential catastrophe.
So, instead of trying to prove your potential decision is right, try to prove it wrong. Look for reasons to doubt it. If you can’t find any–especially if you tried hard–then you can have confidence it’s a good decision.
Assume Your Decision is a Failure
You can go one further, and I need to credit psychologist Gary A. Klein with this idea. He calls it ”pre-mortem.”
Pretend you made the decision already. Now imagine it has gone horribly wrong. Ask yourself: “What would have caused this failure?”
There are many reasons a project can fail, examine the answers you get and see how they can help you improve that decision…or find a better one.
At the very least, if you do decide to stick with that decision, you will have the start of a risk management plan that will help you minimize your implementation risks.
Bring in Outsiders
Bring outsiders into your decision-making. Lots of research shows they can improve decisions, through three effects:
- Being different, they think differently. They know less and therefore ask the simple questions you have ignored. As long as you take the time to answer those questions, you can learn from them.
- The difference also creates a distinct point of view and new insights. They can apply their own experiences and maybe offer creative alternatives: either new ways of testing the decision or new choices.
- They are objective, and therefore will care more about the decision than about egos and relationships. Groupthink is one of the greatest risks to good decision-making. If people in the group are too concerned about causing conflict, they can subconsciously pace harmony above a rigorous discussion. Outsiders are less prone to this.
Listening is Better for Decision-making than Talking
If your team is discussing a decision, avoid contributing to the discussion. Let others do that and focus on listening hard to what they are saying. As soon as a decision-maker lets your opinion out, you will influence everything that follows and therefore compromise your chance to hear all the truths.
Instead, turn off your filters of right and wrong and soak up the facts and insights. Give no clue about which way you are leaning. Challenge everything you hear, to force a robust assessment of each component and fact.
Better still, prevent the experts from stating their opinions at the start. A better approach is to have the information presented in a neutral way, and ask the non-experts to react to what they have heard. What questions do they have? What are their observations? What seems most interesting? The longer you wait before inviting opinions about the ‘right’ answer, the better-formed those opinions will be.
The reason for this is simple. People don’t like to be seen to be changing their minds. The longer you wait before stating opinions, the more chance you must modify them without the social discomfort of having others see you doing it.
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