Think back on the last critical decision you faced at work. A lot was riding on your decision, yet the best choice was probably not clear. There were tradeoffs to be made. What's more, you knew that the path you chose would have a real impact on real people. How did you feel when making that decision? And afterward? Was your choice a good one?
The higher the stakes, the more charged the decision-making process — and the more
political maneuvering behind the scenes. To take the angst out of the decision-making process — and make it more of a science — consider the following five guidelines when
making your next decision:
Frame the issue well
Engage people with diverse perspectives
Recognize and remove biases
Promote a fair process, and
Communicate the decision
How do these principles play out in practice? That's what Jessie, a new manager, wondered as she faced her first critical decision. Aware of the pitfalls ahead, Jessie decided to review her meeting notes from a recent initiative led by her colleague Chad. She and others had worked with Chad to make a difficult decision and come up with a solution to an ongoing organizational problem.
Jessie looked at her notes from their first meeting. She had written: "Frame the issue
correctly — otherwise you may address a symptom, not solve a problem." Thinking back, Jessie remembered how Chad pushed them to identify the real problem with an existing process. He called it the "root issue." It was easy to focus on symptoms of the problem —
like falling market share or high call rates to the support line. But Chad had asked why? — and said they had to keep asking why — until there was no more "why" to ask, and
they reached the root issue.
There were ten people at most meetings — all very different from one another. Jessie
read another of her notes: "Diverse group — will never agree!" She remembered
wondering why Chad had included two stakeholders with much to lose, depending on the decision the team made. Given the team composition, Jessie had expected long arguments, with people becoming increasingly entrenched in their respective positions. That was indeed how things began. Jessie saw a bunch of doodles in her notes. She remembered a heated argument between the manager whose group would be most affected by the decision and a process-reengineering consultant. She and others had tried to interject themselves between the two debaters — but given up. Thus the doodles.
Here was the interesting part, though. Chad had managed to defuse the escalating battle between the manager and consultant. During that meeting — and others — he
encouraged those attending to generate as many ideas as possible. But Chad refused to let
anyone advocate for a position without facts to back it up. Whenever battle lines were drawn, Chad reminded the group of their goal — a rigorous but dispassionate review of
all options, followed by a decision.
Jessie continued through her notes and saw a comment: "Stomp out biases! " Chad had
questioned broad statements like "This is the best vendor," or, "This approach worked for us before." Chad called these thinking biases. Jessie remembered Chad pushing a senior team member to provide facts, not personal opinions or vague remembrances, to back up a statement.
As Jessie continued reading, she saw that Chad had unearthed other subtle biases, for example: "This worked before." That was a bias toward the familiar or the status quo —
common in big organizations. Chad also refused to let the group settle on the biggest vendor in the industry simply because it was the biggest. He called that a bias toward accepting assumptions — and demanded, "Show me why this choice would be best for
Jessie noticed that Chad ended one meeting with an assignment. He asked each team member to get back to him by the end of the day with facts that supported another person's point of view. Very clever. He wanted to counter people's natural bias toward confirming their own opinions.
As the group approached the point of making a final decision, Jessie had expected that the group would fragment. She knew a few people had serious reservations about the solution they eventually selected. It would have been natural for them to withdraw from the process at that point. But Chad managed to keep everyone engaged by pointing out where, when possible, their needs were woven into the solution. He was always fair ,
Jessie looked at the last page of notes. The group had put together an action plan for communicating their decision. Every team member had a role in explaining the decision: the alternatives considered and why they selected the one they did. Jessie read her final note: "We are evangelists. Goal: Generate buy-in for our decision."
After Chad led the team to a solution, Jessie remembered the surprised and relieved looks around the table. During the process, many doubted whether they would reach an agreement that all could embrace. "And how did we get there?" Jessie asked herself. "We framed our goals to solve the problem, not a symptom. We were a diverse team with lots of ideas. Debate was encouraged, biases were flushed out, and facts were required to back up positions. The decision-making process was fair. But we didn't stop there. We communicated our final decision to every single stakeholder."
Jessie closed her notebook. She felt ready to start the process of making her first critical decision as a manager.