Managers, team leaders and their staff can take as many as a hundred or more decisions in the course of a day, each day and every day. Many of these decisions are, of course, no more than automatic responses to familiar situations in which they have to choose between two or three options. However, from time to time, we all have to take decisions on which the course of our future and that of others depends. Then, it is a question of making sure they are right. Here are 7 principles to guide you in right decision-making.
There are two traps which people fall into when making decisions: making them too soon and making them too late. Some people make decisions too swiftly and without due thought. This may be because they are uncomfortable with the tension that is created when a decision has to be made but they don’t have all the information needed. Instead of living with tension, they make the decision before time. Other people delay making decisions because they fear making a mistake or fear the changes that will result. The best decisions are hot-iron decisions: those that are well-timed, which you make when the iron is hot and the time is right.
Knowing Where to Strike
Decisions should be made with the precision that comes from knowledge and knowing where and when to strike.
A famous shipyard in the 1970’s. One day before the maiden voyage of their biggest ship to date. She wouldn’t start. Something wrong with the boiler.
Checked every nut, tightened every bolt. Still nothing. They sent for an expert. A guy from Hamburg.
Scratched his beard.Said: “My fee’s £1000.” The foreman nodded frantically.
“Stand back,” said the expert.
He gave the boiler an almighty wallop with his hammer.
It hiccuped, burped, chugged into life. The foreman stood aghast. “£1000 for one thump with a hammer?”
“No,” said the expert. “For one thump with the hammer, one pound.For knowing where to thump, nine hundred and ninety nine.”
The more decisions you make consciously, the more you can align them with your goals and purposes. Studies show that the average person makes 612 decisions a day. Each one takes us closer or further from our ultimate goals in life. In a week that means 4,900 decisions. In a year, 254,800. Results are cumulative. Strategic thinking means looking at how your decisions today affect your tomorrows. When your decisions are in alignment with what’s important to you, then life becomes meaningful, productive and satisfying.
There are three balancing acts to be aware of in taking a good decision. They are:
- Care and not care. Do all your worrying before the decision and once a decision has been taken, stop worrying.
- Think and act. Too much thinking puts off the action; too much action may be at the expense of thought. Seek the right balance.
- Look before you leap and leap before you look. See the possible risks of your decision but, once decided, take the plunge with courage.
Act When You Have To
You should only make decisions when you have to. Here are 5 “don’ts” to guide you.
- DON’T make a decision unless you have two or more equally valid options.
- DON’T make a decision if it’s somebody else’s responsibility.
- DON’T make a decision unless there is disagreement.
- DON’T make a decision about irrelevant matters.
- DON’T make a decision if it can’t be turned into action.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in politics, it is: never make a decision until you have to.” (Margaret Thatcher)
Use a Decisiion-Making Model
There are no guaranteed ways to make a perfect decision. As Ian Wilson said, “No amount of sophistication is going to allay the fact that all your knowledge is about the past and all your decisions are about the future.” However, there are decision-making systems that can help us in making important decisions. Here are a selection of the best models.
Decision trees are diagrams which consider the different options of a decision by weighing up the likely outcomes and considering how desirable and probable they are.
Let’s say you wanted to start up in business but couldn’t decide whether to start now or in a year’s time. On the tree you would first state what the outcomes could be of each course. For “starting up now”, the outcomes could be “getting into the market early” which would be highly desirable and highly probable; and “over-stretching” which would be quite probable and not at all desirable. On the other hand, for “leaving it for a year”, the outcomes could be “missing the market”, which would be very undesirable and quite probable; and “better preparation” which would be fairly desirable but only fairly probable.
Weighing the options up, it is clear what the best course is.
Prso and Cons
One of the simplest ways to make a decision is to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page. On the right side, list the pluses; on the left side, list the minuses. Weigh up the respective merits of each side, perhaps by giving each factor a weighting, and then decide. Aligned to this method are cost-benefit analyses, and force-field analyses.
Toss A Coin
When all other factors are equal and we can’t make up our minds whether to say “Yes” or “No”, “This way or “That way”, the simplest solution may be to toss a coin. It is worth noting that when Albert Einstein had to make a choice, he would toss a coin and as soon as it landed, he would ask himself how he felt. If good, he would go with it; if bad, he would go against it.
The Equivalent Urn and the Probability Wheel
The equivalent urn and the probability wheel combine the ratings of the pros and cons method of decision-taking with pure chance. In the equivalent urn, which is any large container that can hold ping-pong balls, place black balls for every disadvantage in an option and white balls for every advantage in an option. You can rate each factor from 1 to 10 on the scale of desirability or probability and mark the rating on the balls. Now shuffle the balls and pick one out of the urn (or the best of three). Use these to decide whether to go for it or not. The probability wheel is similar to the equivalent urn, except that the options are drawn on the spokes of a spinning wheel and weighted according to their rating. The wheel is spun and the spoke that points to the winning arrow is the option to take.
The Parent-Adult-Child decision-making model uses the Parent, Adult, Child concepts from Transactional Analysis to illustrate three approaches to making a decision.
Let’s say we’ve seen a book that we want to buy at £29.00.
- the Child in us wants it; we love the thought of owning it, feeling it, enjoying it; the thought of owning it thrills us.
- the Internal Parent in us asks us what we should do, wondering whether the money couldn’t be better spent elsewhere and whether it isn’t a bit of a waste of money.
- the Adult in us weighs up dispassionately what the pros and cons are in the light of our other needs and goals.
We can now make an informed decision whether to buy it or not.
Six Thinking Hats
Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” and “Six Thinking Shoes” models are attempts to break out of traditional, logical decision-making. Both models use clothing and their colours to prompt us to think in certain ways when making a decision.
- White hat. White is neutral and objective and like white paper, conveys simple facts
- Black hat. Black is judgmental like the black hat a judge put on when passing the death sentence
- Red hat. Red is fire, warmth and energy and represents intuitive thought. It is the colour of a witch’s hat.
- Yellow hat. Yellow is the colour of a straw boater and is summery, positive and optimistic.
- Green hat. Green, the colour of a gardener’s hat, represents new life and new ideas.
- Blue hat. Blue is the colour of cool, detached thinking as if we were looking down from the sky.
Six Thinking Shoes
Here are Edward de Bono’s six thinking shoes that develop the six thinking hats further.
- Navy shoes. Navy blue is the colour of routines, the things that are necessary for survival
- Grey sneakers. Grey is the colour of brainwork, as in “the old grey matter” and represents the things we need to know
- Brown brogues. Brown is the colour of earth and represents what is practical and down-to-earth
- Orange gumboots. Orange is the colour of warning signs, the thoughts we need to assess risks
- Pink slippers. Pink is what is comfortable, caring and understanding
- Purple riding boots. Purple is pomp and splendour and represents responsible thinking, what we should do.
NOISICED is “decision” spelt backwards. The letters spell out the eight steps in making a decision. An example is coming to a decision about a job move.
N – Needs: Why do I need to move?
O – Objectives: Does the new job help me achieve my ambitions?
I – Information: Do I have all the information I need? What are the key pieces of information?
S – Strategy: Does this move fit in with my life’s plans?
I – Investigate: Check out other possibilities.
C – Choosing: What are the steps I need to take to make the move?
E – Ego states: How do I feel? What do I think? What should I do?
D – DECIDE.
On The Hoof
Some decisions can be made on the hoof, or as we go, as long as we are prepared to learn from wrong decisions and adjust our course in the process. David Kolb’s experiential learning model provides a useful five-stage plan for “on-the- hoof” decisions:
- take the decision to act on the best evidence to hand and with a clear view of what our overall objectives are
- now, act. Do so confidently and with commitment.
- assess the results. Has the decision brought us nearer our objectives? If not, why not?
- think about it. What can we learn from the results?
- devise a theory for use next time. From what happened, what do we now know that we didn’t know before?
- now take another decision but with the wisdom of having learnt from the previous experience and go round the cycle once more.
No matter what method or model we use to make a decision, there comes a moment when we know instinctively whether the decision is right or not. Many of the biggest business deals ever taken were taken on instinct. But they were rarely taken on a whim. Intuition works best when we have done the groundwork, accumulated plenty of expertise and researched the field. Intuition is no substitute for hard work and planning. Take time to cultivate your intuition for it is never wrong and has your best interests at heart.
Don’t Decide Without Acting
Eric Aronson tells this riddle: If 5 birds are sitting on a wire and one of them decides to fly away, how many are left? The answer is five. One bird’s decision to fly away does not mean it did!
Theodore Roosevelt said that the worst thing you could do when you have to make a decision is to do nothing. Even if you make a wrong decision, the very making of it and the learning from it are steps forward. As Frederick Langbridge added, “If you don’t follow through on a decision, someone else will pick it up and use it. When you make a decision, jump in with both feet, don’t just stick your toe in the water. Be daring, be fearless, and don’t be afraid that somebody is going to criticize you or laugh at you. If your ego is not involved, no one can hurt you.”
Keep Your Under Review
Decisions are a mix of what we currently want (goals); what we currently know (information); what we believe (outcomes); and what we can do (actions). There is no guarantee that any of these will stay the same or that they will come right. No decision is perfect. This is because half-way through the implementation of a decision we may realise we don’t want to achieve the goal after all. After taking a decision, we may stumble across more information which, had we had it before, would have totally changed our decision. A successful decision depends as much on motivation and skill in implementation as on getting it right.
Nobody who regularly makes important decisions affecting the lives of others will tell you hand on heart that they get it right every time. Decision-taking is more of an art than a science. But practice, and learning from our results, may at least take us closer down the road to a 100% strike rate.
- The best decisions are hot-iron decisions made just at the right time.
- A right decision is one which meets your aims and resources and which you are prepared to act upon.
- The time to worry about a decision is before you take it, not afterwards.
- You should only take a decision if it can be turned into immediate action.
- You should only take a decision if you have no alternative.
- Use a decision-taking model such as the Six Thinking Hats to get all angles on an issue.