As a leader, the “buck” for certain decisions stops with you. You’re responsible for outcomes impacting your team, your organization, your career, your family and friends. Sometimes the choice is clear, but frequently, it’s not. Ambiguities are the norm, and while there is pressure to make fast decisions, you know that it’s more important to make timely decisions. Meanwhile, stakeholders press you because they have their own motivations and need to know how your decision impacts them.
Good decision-making isn’t based on the quantity of information you’re able to review, but on the quality of information you’re able to comprehend and process to the right conclusion. Good decision-making brings together intuition and systems understanding of the many networks impacted by the choices you make. It incorporates intellectual agility to draw conclusions from a broad array of facts and data to reach desired outcomes, with the political savvy to navigate varied perspectives and power dynamics. Thus, decision-making is not only a science but an art.
So how do you proceed when faced with complex decisions whose solutions are ambiguous and potentially costly? When deadlines are looming, timelines are pressing, interested parties are asking, and budgets are withholding? You’ve already eliminated several options and narrowed the scope. An obvious choice may be emerging, but you don’t yet feel comfortable with it. Something is missing but you’re not sure what it is. What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
Wait For It
Across the decades of my career, one of my best learnings was knowing when not to make a decision…yet. I learned to listen to my gut, test my instincts, gather more information, put people off, and sometimes just wait. Invariably, with the passage of a day, a week or a month, other variables would shift, and more information or perspectives would come into focus that would make the appropriate solution obvious. And had I caved in to earlier pressure to decide, my choice would not have been the best one. This is obviously easier when others trust you, and you’re perceived as capable in your role, because you invariably must help them understand why you’ve made the decision. But even without that, a poor-quality decision can do more damage than waiting for the right moment to make a decision.
I’m also reminded of the 1997 movie Air Force One. Harrison Ford portrayed the President of the United States as he, his family and several members of his cabinet traveled back to the U.S. aboard his plane. Russian terrorists on board disguised as journalists hijacked the plane, intent on securing the release of a Kazakhstan terrorist leader held by the U.S. military. To save the hostages lives, the President gives the order to free him, while the U.S. military works to rescue the President. Back in Washington, the Defense Secretary urges the Vice President, played by Glenn Close, to invoke the 25th amendment removing the President from office so that his order will not stand. In spite of the incredible pressure to do so, Close refuses to sign the executive order invoking it, and the President is ultimately rescued before the terrorist leader is fully released. It’s obvious that her gut instinct was at work as she and the entire Situation Room heave a great sigh of relief that her delay paid off.
What Do You Consider?
So what are your considerations when making complex decisions? Focus on these three key areas.
1. Priorities – What are your most important outcomes that are needed? Decisions are all about results. So what are you trying to accomplish? And maybe that answer isn’t so obvious. Is it more important to increase revenue, sell more products and services, or open more stores? Is it more important to build brand awareness or redesign your product to make it more visibly attractive? Is it more important to retain good employees or to reduce employment related spending? Each of these choices has repercussions on the other, as well as on a host of systemically related issues that must be considered before the right decision evolves.
2. Values – What are your principles or standards of behavior? Sometimes decisions are difficult because they go against your values and principles. If you believe that people are the most important part of your business, you will resist when someone is forcing you to make a decision that minimizes their value. If you place a high value on trust, you will refrain from decisions that destroy the trust that you’ve built with other key stakeholders.
3. Feelings – What are your emotions related to the choices in front of you? Write down each emotion along with an explanation of why you feel that way. Decisions that elicit negative emotions are often more complex, but this may help to isolate the specific aspects of that decision that make it most difficult. Similarly, you’ll want to retain the aspects of that decision that elicit the most positive emotions. Your gut instincts will manifest here as well. While more difficult to pinpoint and almost impossible to reason out, learning to recognize and to trust your gut will provide a payoff.
At the intersection of multiple priorities, values, and feelings lie your best decisions. The more experience you have with complex and tough decisions, the better your ability to make them, and the more valuable your leadership becomes to others.