Monday, September 04, 2006

The Working Life: Smart Decision Making
The Radio Show Recap...

In this segment of The Working Life, Carol Blymire and I discussed the importance of developing and exercising strong decision-making skills in the workplace. Decision-making skills are integral to business and career success—yet many people find themselves stressed and overwhelmed by even the smallest of decisions. We explored some strategies that people could employ to improve their decision-making prowess.

Carol’s Question: Let’s start with a term we often refer to as “analysis paralysis” and the fact that so many decisions take so long because we just can’t seem to stop analyzing the situation and come to a conclusion. How can someone get past this problem?

My Thoughts: At the risk of oversimplifying, making a decision requires us to engage in 3 main activities:
  1. Gather data/information
  2. Analyze (reflect, assess, etc) data/information
  3. Choose
While there may be many more sub-steps, processes, machinations, methodologies, etc. the basic building blocks of decision-making are (and always have been): data gathering, analysis, and choice. If you suffer from analysis paralysis—then chances are you suffer from the ability to choose. And choosing is the heart and soul of decision-making.

If you have trouble choosing you are not alone. There are psychological, sociological, professional, and organizational hindrances that may be working against you. For example, as a personality, you may be a “Perceiver” on the Myers Brigg Type Indicator which means you tend to be predisposed to keeping options open and are more drawn to exploration and possibilities. Or consider your professional training. Lawyers and scientists for example—are trained to carefully explore each and every possibility and turn over every stone. Therefore making quick decisions may be contrary to your professional training. Or perhaps your organization is simply very harsh on people who make mistakes. Therefore you tend to analyze everything to death so as to avoid punishment.

Since there are many reasons why your ability to choose can be compromised, it is helpful to determine what “blocks” you from choosing. Once you have a better sense of how these personality or environmental blocks detract from your ability to choose, you can create more specific strategies to overcome them.

Skill Building Tip: The 70% rule
The Marine Corps believes the worst decision is to make no decision at all. Simply put, some action has a better chance of success than no action at all. So their decision-making methodology is simple: the 70% rule. If you have 70% of the information, have done 70% of the analysis, and feel 70% confident, then make your decision.

Carol’s Question: Another pitfall some people make is always being a “yes” man or surrounding themselves with “yes” men. They agree with whatever their supervisor or a co-worker suggests, because they want to be popular or feel like part of the team. When in fact, in saying “yes” all the time, they never develop the skills to make a decision. What can someone do in this situation?

My Thoughts: Well if you truly want to surround yourself with “yes” men—I can’t help you. I can only tell you that research repeatedly shows that debate or conflict can actually produce better decisions.

However, if you would like to create a strong cadre of people who can make decisions or aid in your decision-making then I suggest you start by becoming very explicit about both the decision-making process itself and your team’s role in it. I see more problems with confusion and cynicism than I see with “yes men.” This is because mangers are not good at articulating their decision-making process. People need to know three basic things:
  1. Who is making the decision
  2. How the decision is being made
  3. What role, if any, do they have in the decision-making process
In other words, if my team is facing a decision—my team leader must be explicit about how that decision is going to be made. Who is actually going to making the decision? How will the decision be made? Is the decision maker using input from others? Does he/she want my input? If so, what kind of input? The single most important thing a leader can do prior to engaging in a decision-making process is to clearly outline that process.

Here are some basic processes:
  • Authority Without Discussion: The leader makes the decision (alone) with no room for discussion
  • Authority With Discussion: (Participative/Consultative): Leader makes decisions with consultation and interaction of team member
  • Expert: Find or hire an expert and follow their recommendations
  • Averaging (Compromise): Team members haggle, bargain, cajole, and negotiate an intentional middle position
  • Minority: A subcommittee or task force makes recommendations for action
  • Majority (Democratic): The team votes and majority wins
  • Consensus: All team members must agree. Dissent requires continued discussion.

The second key to successful decision-making is matching the right style to the situation at hand. Considering context is a critical in making good decisions.

Carol’s Question: Anxiety is often a contributor to bad decisions or no decisions at all. When faced with a scenario that you need to make a call on, how can someone keep his or her anxiety in check and remain level-headed enough to make a decision?

My thoughts: When making difficult decisions it is critical to master your emotional field. This does not, by the way, mean to completely ignore your emotions. Quite the contrary—it means you need to be able to use the information your emotions are giving you without being held hostage by them. In fact, studies have shown that low levels of anxiety are actually beneficial to sound decision-making—whereas high levels of anxiety often lead to panic and poor decision-making.

Tips for managing anxiety:

  • Prepare with process. Be thoughtful about the decision-making process itself. This means spend time up front thinking through how you are going to make the decision. You might have different processes (or methodologies) for different types of decisions. Finding a process that works for your temperament and context can really benefit the decision-making process. Then if you start to get anxious—you can rely on a trusted process to carry you through.
  • Pinpoint the cause(s) of your anxiety. What are you anxious about? Is it failure? Making a mistake? The impact of the decision? Being wrong? Your data? The timing? The responsibility? Identifying the root cause of your anxiety will provide you with more informed options for alleviating it.
  • Use scenarios to play out the decision. Sometimes it helps to mentally play out the various decisions. What would it really look like if….Play with the worse case scenario. Allow yourself the freedom to “fail safely,” The truth is, that for most of us, the decisions we make are not life-altering, world shaking affairs. In fact most of our decisions can be fixed or reversed much more easily than we think.

Find and use effective relaxation techniques. Remember—high levels of anxiety are shown to decrease decision-making success. Do what you have to do to release your anxiety: Take a walk, meditate, play a game, call a friend, watch a movie, listen to music, pray, visualize success—whatever works for you.

Carol’s Question: Many of today’s global business leaders say that decision-making is easy – you just have to trust your gut, except when it’s wrong. Do we tend to overanalyze things and not trust what our gut instinct is telling us? How do we trust what we already know?

My thoughts: When we talk about “gut,” we’re really talking about intuition and deeply ingrained experiences. Intuition is not some hocus pocus ESP magic wand kind of thing. Intuition is a conglomeration of years of information and experience rattling around inside your head, heart, and gut. We are bombarded by millions of bits of data every second—and only a small fraction of that data reaches our conscious mental state. The rest of it just kind of sits there and waits for us to tap into it. And when we do, it hits as if it comes from out of the blue—when in fact it is the subconscious blending of lots of data bits. Another large aspect of “trusting the gut” or intuition is experience based. We may think we’re operating on gut—when in fact we are making decisions based on actual experiences—and making them faster than our rational minds can discern. Think about fighter pilots and the split second decisions they make. Are they based on gut? Or are they based on hundreds of hours of experience, simulations and training?

In order to trust what you already know—you have to do simply that. Trust it. The paradox of trust is that you can’t know something (or someone) is trustworthy until you actually trust them. Start with small decisions and work your way up. You’ll quickly learn whether your gut is trustable or not!

Carol’s Question: Some decisions are difficult to make because sometimes we’re lacking in experience in a specific area. How can someone overcome the inexperience hurdle and make a strong, smart decision?

My thoughts: Inexperience can be a fantastic asset to difficult decision-making. People who have less experience in a subject matter will also have less assumptions and therefore will be less curtailed by falsely imposed boundaries. So if you have less experience—use that to your advantage. Ask the “dumb” questions. Question the obvious assumptions. Approach the situation with the perspective of a newcomer. Get as basic, na├»ve, and simplistic as possible. You’ll be amazed how your fresh eyes can transform the situation.

Carol’s Question: We’ve all been in situations where we’ve been faced with the need for reaching consensus, or decision by committee. It’s usually stressful, involves debate, and forces some people to abandon their original way of thinking. Is this a bad thing, or is it inevitable for a company to succeed?

My thoughts: Okay, so at the risk of having to turn in my organizational management consultant card—I must admit I am not a zealot for the consensus style of decision-making. I don’t believe the consensus style is the end all and be all of organizational effectiveness. In fact, I think consensus decision-making is overrated and misused in many organizations. There I’ve said it.

Like any decision-making process—it is important to use consensus wisely and appropriately. (Consensus means that all team members agree. Any dissent requires continued discussion). Consensus decision-making is timely and psychologically costly. Therefore not all decisions are appropriate for the consensus style. While consensus decisions do produce high levels of commitment and buy-in from the participants—it is NOT the only way to get support for your decisions. Overusing consensus will eventually produce lethargy and dissatisfaction in your organization as well as promote culture where no one is willing to make a stand and/or make a decision.

Advantages of Consensus Decision Style
  • Can produce an innovative, creative, high-quality decision
  • Elicits commitment by all members
  • Uses the resources of all members
Disadvantages Consensus Decision Style
  • Consumes time and psychological energy
  • Requires some group skill
  • Not good when a fast decision is needed

Closing thoughts: There are many ways to make decisions. Your ability to make good effective and successful decisions is more than natural talent or B-School hype. It is important to consider both your process and the situational context. Being thoughtful and reflective about your process can help you match the decision with the context.

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