One of the most important skills required to achieve success, right up there with the ability to communicate, is the ability to make decisions. Certainly the highest–paid executives are all people who have mastered the art of making decisions.
Good decision-makers don’t fear being wrong occasionally because they know that the only way to never make a mistake is to never make a decision. They also know that if they never make decisions they seldom get anything done.
You will not always be able to completely control the results of your decisions, but you can usually keep control of the process; and make no mistake about it, there is a definite decision-making process.
The most important step in the decision-making process is to wait until your emotions are in neutral before taking any action. Decisions made in the midst of an overwhelming emotional reaction -- be it enthusiasm, anger, sorrow, humiliation, or whatever -- often turn out to be completely inappropriate. You should always eliminate options that would likely result in outcomes that you would be uncomfortable living with, and such options are more apt to be chosen when you’re overly emotional. Following are examples of bad non-executive decisions I’ve seen people make while in the throes of the four emotions just mentioned. It would take a separate book to catalogue all the bad executive decisions I’ve seen caused by precipitate, emotional reactions.
1) Enthusiasm: vastly overpaying for a residence without engaging in enough research, inspection, introspection or consideration of future requirements; then having to sell it at a substantial loss.
2) Anger: more bad decisions are made in anger than during any other emotional experience, such as the professional hockey player who cost himself a small fortune in lost income, legal fees and possible damages (the lawsuits are still ongoing at the time of writing), not to mention the damage to his own career, because he decided in anger to assault another player resulting in the end of that player’s career.
3) Sorrow: a new widow selling her home and moving to another city away from family and friends, only to have to move back a couple of years later after much emotional and financial cost.
4) Humiliation: a young accounting student lashing out at his boss during an office party because the boss had made, in front of others, what the student took to be a disparaging remark about his background. The outburst poisoned their relationship to the point where the student had to change firms thereby considerably delaying his career advancement.
The second most important step in the decision-making process is to gather as much information as you can before coming to your final conclusion. In most situations your decisions are going to be no better than the information on which they are based. An important step in getting the information you need to make a sound decision is to ask questions. I’ve rarely, if ever, regretted asking a question, whereas there’ve been many times when I’ve regretted not asking one.
While gathering your information you have to remain objective. Ignoring facts doesn’t change them; reality has to be faced. It’s not what you would like the situation to be that matters; it’s what the situation actually is that has to be dealt with. For example, if your company doesn’t have the resources to follow through on a particular decision, then a different decision has to be made.
The best formula for gathering the information necessary to make a decision that I’ve ever come across was one I learned when I took the Dale Carnegie Course. It was a five-step process that went something like this:
1) State the problem as simply as possible.
2) List all the causes of the problem.
3) List every possible solution, no matter how “far out” it might be (which is called “brainstorming” today).
4) Pick the best possible solution.
5) Decide what action to take.
Taking the time to go through these steps will help ensure that your emotions are in check and that you’ve gathered sufficient information on which to base a decision.
During the decision-making process you need to separate facts from opinions, and you should always give more weight to facts than to opinions. Everyone is entitled to have an opinion, but no one is entitled to be wrong about facts, and it’s good to keep in mind that someone’s opinion doesn’t make something a fact. Remember, too, that facts are like stories; they need a context. So-called “facts” should always be examined carefully to determine their relevance and probable impact in the context of the problem you’re dealing with. It’s rare for two situations to be identical; but if they are identical be sure to determine what the outcome was in the previous situation. Somebody once defined stupidity as making the same decisions and expecting a different result.
Another distinction that you have to make in the decision-making process is the difference between a prediction and a fantasy. Just because you would dearly love something to be doesn’t mean that it’s going to come to pass. You have to recognize that your feelings and personal experiences may not be typical of the population as a whole, so the overall reaction to your decision may well be the opposite of what you would like it to be. For example, before deciding to start a business based on a new product or service that you would use personally, be sure that you’ve done sufficient research to determine whether a sufficiently wide market actually exists.
The next issue to be faced in the decision-making process is timing. The most important timing consideration is to avoid the two extremes: unwarranted delay on the one hand, and impulsive, snap decisions on the other. When being pressured into making a quick decision, the best answer is always “no”. This is because it’s usually easier to change a “no” to a “yes” than vice versa. Never rush a decision if there’s no compelling reason to do so.
But indecision is not desirable either. When considering the consequences of an action, always factor in the consequences of inaction. A well-thought-out decision is like a scalpel that cuts clean and straight, while indecision is a like a dull knife that causes ragged gashes. With a well-thought-out decision you’re on your way to a successful operation; indecision, on the other hand, results in delays in getting on with the operation and often causes other problems.
A form of indecision often engaged in is spending too much time considering a back-up position. Concentrate too long on your back-up position and you may well end up needing it because the opportunity to execute your preferred action may have passed. As a colleague of mine once put it, stare at anything long enough and it’ll start making faces at you.
Even though all of the foregoing aspects of decision making are important, you should be careful not to over-complicate the decision-making process. Simple solutions may have to be discarded, but they should always be considered first. When instinct and logic both clearly suggest the same decision, it’s probably the right decision.
The final step in the decision-making process is to decide what actions you are going to take in order to make it work, which should always include deciding how, and to whom, you are going to communicate the decision. As is the case in all important communications, your communication should not just be capable of being understood but should be incapable of being misunderstood. Therefore, the communication must be carefully crafted and should always point out the benefits of the decision to the people involved as well as exactly what will be expected from them in its implementation.
There are three more characteristics of decision-making to keep in mind.
The first is that you have to practice making decisions; mastering the decision-making process gets easier the more you do it.
The second is that you cannot be right all the time; when you get a mouthful of scalding hot coffee, whatever you do next is going to be wrong. Although it would be nice to always be able to do everything right; sometimes you just have to do what can be done.
Finally, it’s always better to be someone dealing with a problem than it is to be a problem that someone else has to deal with, which can happen if you take too long making a decision.
People will remember how you handled a problem long after they’ve forgotten what the problem was.