Great decision-making is one of the hallmarks of great leadership. But how do you develop great decision-making skills? Are some people just born with the ability to make good decisions by using innately logical minds and good intuition?
So, here's a great piece of trivia that puts the pitfalls of decision-making into perspective. Soccer goalkeepers trying to block a penalty kick can't wait until the ball is kicked to figure out how to block it; he or she will simply not have enough time to respond. The keeper has to make a decision on what part of the net to protect before the ball is kicked. You'd think that in this sort of set up the odds are 50/50; but they are not. Over 80% of penalty kicks score according to research at Ben-Guriono University in Israel. They reason for this is very counter intuitive but it tells us a lot about how decisions are made, especially in fast moving situations.
"...the bias towards action rather than inaction was more compelling than the actual results!"
According to the Ben-Guriono research, it turns out that the best way to stop a penalty kick is to just stay in the center of the net. But that's rarely what keepers do. When asked why they instead pick a side to jump to, in order to block the kick, keepers said that they felt much worse about goals that scored when they stayed in the center and didn't take action than those that scored when they did take action, by jumping to one side or the other. In other words the bias towards action rather than inaction was more compelling than the actual results!
The same thing happens in most organizations; we take action even when the action is unnecessary.
The Holy Trinity of Decision Making
The reality is that good decision-making is a simple matter of sticking to some very basic guidelines, while everyone else wants to take a shortcut and just take action--any action.
In my experience, the vast majority of decisions are actually non-decisions; they appear in the guise of a problem that has to be solved when the apparent problem actually has nothing to do the root cause of the issue at hand. For example, deciding how to streamline a process that shouldn't even exist to begin with. It's like spending time and money to tune your car's engine so that it gets an extra five miles to the gallon when you only use it to drive two miles a day.
"Your role, as a leader, is to make sure that you and your organization don't get sucked into the black hole of decision-making just because it feels like progress."
This sort of decision overload leads to too much time in meetings, misallocation of resources, investment in outdated systems and processes, and ultimately a dysfunctional culture that feeds off of the need to overanalyze everything, no matter how insignificant. The reason for this poor organizational pathology is that people like to take action because it makes them feel as though they are creating value.
Your role, as a leader, is to make sure that you and your organization don't get sucked into the black hole of decision-making just because it feels like progress.
The good news is that you can develop great decision-making skills just by asking three simple questions whenever you find yourself in a situation where a decision has to be made.
Why are we making this decision?
The first and most important question to ask when making any decision is "Why are we doing this?" To use the keeper analogy, do we really have to move to block the shot? That sounds so incredibly simplistic that it is the easiest step to avoid. That's also why it's the hardest question to ask; everyone assumes the "why" is obvious, making it frustrating to even consider answering Why. Yet, this is one of the core techniques of the Six Sigma methodology, which suggests asking "why: at least five times in order to identify the root cause of an issue. Many decisions are masked in layers of complexity that need to pealed away in order to address the actual problem or opportunity.
Yet, our instinct is to take action and solve the problem at hand. In these cases, like the goalkeeper, we are moving back and forth from side to side to create an illusion of action that makes us feel productive when it actually does nothing for the organization's effectiveness and bottom line. Learning to ask Why so that you can simply move beyond these time sinks may be one of the most critical skills you can develop and impart to your colleagues.
When do we need to make this decision by?
The second temptation is always to go from Why to How. The problem is that How is almost always dependent on When. One of my favorite examples is the scene in Apollo 13 when the brilliant engineers at NASA have to figure out how to build a makeshift CO2 scrubber using duct tape, users manuals, and whatever else was available onboard the ill-fated orbiter and lunar lander. Given unlimited time they could easily have built many versions, tested each one, and refined the design to work perfectly. But they had minutes not hours to decide. Even in that scenario you can imagine at least one engineer saying, "But if we could just get a few more minutes this would be perfect! Can someone just ask the astronauts to hold their breath?"
Whether you like it or not, the time you have to decide will determine the degree to which you can be creative about gathering and analyzing the variables involved in the decision. Often, just standing your ground is the best action to take, even thought it may feel like you're not in motion.
How do we make the decision?
By the time you finally get to this question you know that the decision has both merit and a time constraint. The issue now is how to go about making the best decision possible. Great leaders make sure their team knows what the parameters of the decision are and keeps the team within those boundaries, while reassuring them that time and resources will rarely be adequate to anticipate all the repercussion of most decisions. The key isn't predicting the future, but surviving it.
Do yourself a favor and try these three steps for the next two weeks. While I can't guarantee the outcomes of your decision, I can assure you that not only will your ability to make decisions improve significantly, but you'll also become a much more effective leader in the process.