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Bringing your decision making into the 21st century

Mona Riabacke and Ari Riabacke
|Dec 3|magazine14 min read

Despite the strong rise in profitability in American and European companies over the past 30 years, there is a general lack of decisive leadership. In order to remain competitive, today’s leaders need to continuously review their decision making and to maintain speed and agility. New players from emerging markets pose a threat to more established companies, as they often have greater agility and aggressiveness. Making sound decisions at the necessary pace is a skill set that clearly needs to be developed, yet there are few tools for managers and leaders in this regard. Here is some advice on where to start:

Overcome (strategic) decision inertia

Many leaders today feel the pressure to demonstrate short-term financial performance, yet believe that a long-term approach for business decisions will increase performance. Long-term (strategic) decisions are very (critically) important, but not urgent, and therefore the time and effort taken in addressing these decisions is often not proportional to the value they bring to a business. In order to avoid this pitfall, review where you spend your time and determine the fit between time spent and your strategic priorities. Just like you create a budget sheet; make a decision sheet to ensure you spend your time efficiently.

Create a suitable decision making culture

A company’s culture is often a key driver of its success. The decision-making culture needs to match the ecosystem in which the business operates. For example, a consensus-seeking decision making culture may be too slow for certain environments. To meet the prerequisites, different departments within a larger company may need different approaches. R & D is likely to thrive when people feel confident to think differently, when no idea is too simple to explore, when there is a great deal of flexibility and so on. Production and IT require more structure. As we develop more and more diverse workforces, culture becomes even more important to address, as it is not only the ecosystem, but also the individual cultures of employees that affect how decisions are made. A western mentality may not work as well in a hierarchical environment, unless the company manages to supersede local preferences. Google, for instance, has succeeded in this. The best cultural approach to adopt depends on many variables, but a general recommendation is this: if the aim is to explore new possibilities and make more broad-minded decisions, then you must hire people with diverse backgrounds and make sure everyone is heard—and not inhibited by the fear of failure. You need to create an “ok to make a mistake” atmosphere, because if you don’t dare to make mistakes, you rule out the possibility of progressing beyond “what we’ve always done” (a necessity in a rapidly changing world).

Establish clear decision processes and roles to maintain effectiveness

Understanding the what, who, how, and when of critical decisions and actions will enable you and your team to pace the work appropriately with the right people (and only the right people!) involved. To stay on top, it is more important than ever to maintain speed and agility. Too many initiatives get bogged down as too many people are involved in the decision making and at the same time no one takes the utmost responsibility for making sure it gets done. Moreover, it’s important to understand that a decision process doesn’t end once the decision has been made; it is cyclic and should always involve a review at the end. Only then is it possible to optimize and learn from mistakes.

Evaluate your options against a set of criteria

We have a natural tendency to seek information that supports what we believe and disregard information that doesn’t. This is called confirmation bias, and today it is one of the greatest challenges we face when it comes to making good decisions. A common approach when faced with a decision is to first find an alternative one believes in and then gather information that supports it. Most of the time, the environment rewards a myopic focus. However, this narrows not only your mind, but also your possibilities. Instead, you need to take a step back to initially consider what criteria you find important for your choice, and then gather information about what you really need (and not just information you can get your hands on, as the amount of available information is enormous.) Thereafter, make a choice by weighing your options against these pre-determined set of criteria. This will help you consider/evaluate your options more objectively and make your decision making more effective.

And, last but not least, remember that feelings are always faster than logic
Using intuition in combination with the courage to decide can be a great asset if you aim to make fast decisions. However, understanding your gut feeling can be a tricky task and using it for important decisions comes with a warning. You need to be aware of the fact that your feelings are always, always, always faster than your logic, and your intuitive choice of a certain cause of action can be based on hidden parameters; for example, a feeling of fear, stress, threat, or preference for a character trait, smell or color. The old saying: “Don’t make permanent decisions based on temporary emotions” is sound advice. When you need to be fast, using your gut may be the only option, but add a step or two. Make sure to explicitly answer why you believe it is the right decision and why it’s not. This is a way to recognise your emotions, give you a more objective view of the situation and help you spot your subjective or irrational tendencies. Also, if possible, seek input from people with different mindsets to add their perspectives and broaden your view.

In the end, many times it takes courage to make important decisions. Depending on the outcome, we can be called either brave or foolish. Yet, as Michael Jordan has said “Never let the fear of failure keep you from playing the game”.

Mona Riabacke, PhD and Ari Riabacke, PhD, are the authors of Freestyle Decision Making