Decision making, at the best of times, is a difficult enterprise. You are faced with the challenge of making a choice, where the consequences of your decision cannot be fully understood until after it has been made. The challenge, then, is finding the insight, the wisdom and the process necessary to make good decisions in the face of imperfect information. How do you make the best choice, when you cannot know how the consequences will play out?
How we make decisions is the focus of a growing amount of interest, as reflected in books, articles and columns about the subject. A recent profile in The Globe and Mail is a good example. It purports to provide guidance on how to make effective decisions as a leader. But what will following this guidance lead to in terms of practical consequences?
Certainly, leaders are in part looked to—and in part admired—for their ability to be decisive in the face of uncertainty. Decisive and right, however, is far to be preferred over strongly worded and cluelessly misguided. The model in the article suggests that there are four dimensions that need to be managed: fear, facts, future and fulcrum.
In terms of fear, the emphasis of the author is on managing emotions. While this is an aspect that needs to be addressed, without question, this does not mean that purely rational decision making must substitute. We cannot know everything, and we cannot process everything. The result is that we at times must make decisions based upon intuition and guiding principles; what is critical here is being in touch with our emotions, not shutting them down. As has been proved time and again, there are times where our subconscious knows with certainty before our conscious mind can rationally explain. The challenge is that intuition is not something that is praised or accepted in a business context, at least not overtly. But in reality, it has how many critical decisions are made. Rational decision making is about post hoc rationalization more than it is about actual deliberation.
This leads into the role that facts play in decision making. The author of the Globe article suggests ‘getting all the facts’. Certainly facts and knowledge are valuable, but there are limitations to what can be known, what can be understood and what can be calculated by a decision maker. It is not about getting *all* the facts; that is an unattainable goal. It is about recognizing when we have all the facts that it is possible to get, that it is economical to get or that it is appropriate to get. The follow on implication, however, is rather profound: most complex decisions are going to have to be made with imperfect information. Regardless of how much more information you would like, you are likely going to have to make a choice before you are comfortable doing so.
Equally uncertain is the ability to ascertain what the future holds. Unfortunately, the guidance the article author provides here is altogether too limited to provide more than preliminary guidance. Giving consideration to impacts is useful of course, and making decisions in the context of their defensibility is important. But the test that the article offers—would you want to see it on the front page—is vague and ambiguous. See what? The decision, or the consequences? We already live in a world where we try to hide that decisions have been made, despite the consequences of doing so. We also live in a world where deniability trumps accountability. While the principle behind the test outlined by the author—wanting to see the decision published—makes sense in the context of accountability, a slightly different emphasis provides a far larger understanding of consequences. Specifically, what is the decision that you can live with, regardless of the outcome? Whether public or not, whether successful or not, what choice is justifiable? This forces a consideration of all the consequences, from the most favourable to the least acceptable, and a reckoning of the consequences of each of them.
The final dimension outlined in the article is fulcrum. Whether the author is clearly attempting to be alliterative, or simply has a fetish for the letter ‘f’, this last dimension requires some further explanation. The sense of the author appears to be determining *when* the best time to make a decision is, assessing when the result is most likely to be accepted. In other words, when will you have the most leverage to get the outcome that you want? The implication is that timing is everything, and that there are good and bad times to have a choice be made.
While I do understand the point, this final dimension reinforces the level of artifice behind each of the other points that have been outlined. In essence, how do you manipulate facts, emotion, perception of the future and timing to most favourable get the answer that you want? That isn’t decision making, however: it is politics and marketing. Decision making is about making the best choice under the circumstances, even when we would rather the circumstances would be different.
Certainly, there are questions that the article inspires that should be asked. Is this my decision? Do I need to make this decision now, or when must it be made by? What information can be known? Who will this decision affect? My challenge is that while these principles are inspired by the article, they aren’t explicitly stated. Decisions are not made at our convenience. Rather, decisions inconvenience us with their pressing demands. Effective leaders respond in the moment, because the moment is all they have to work with. They do the best they can with what they have, recognizing that it will never be enough and it will never be perfect. They consult where possible, and decide where necessary.
Certainly, decision making is hard. It is a process that is made easier, however, by being clear about the decisions that need to be made, how they will be made and the consequences that will result. Accept that information will be imperfect, consequences will be incomplete and the future is uncertain. Do the best you can under the circumstances.