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John Wayne once famously said, “What’s the secret of success? Right decisions. How do you make right decisions? Experience. How do you get experience? Wrong decisions.”
Although there’s some truth to The Duke’s quip, fortunately people can learn to make good decisions without making bad decisions first. In this article, we’ll discuss four simple steps that can help anyone make better decisions: foster collaborative debate, trust your instinct, verify the logic, and be courageously decisive.
But first, let’s start with the question, “What constitutes a good decision?” I’ve found this description helpful: a course of action that maximizes advantages and opportunities, while minimizing disadvantages and risks associated with achieving an objective. Whatever your definition, I’ve learned that good decision-making boils down to good judgment.
So how do you develop good judgment? In “The Elements of Good Judgment,” London Business School professor Andrew Likierman describes six components: learning, trust, experience, detachment, options, and delivery. Leaders with good judgment tend to be good readers and listeners who learn from others’ successes and mistakes, and they trust others who have diverse perspectives and experiences to provide valuable input. They combine these factors with their own experience, and try to detach themselves emotionally from the issue in order to minimize bias. They question aspects of the options being offered, and finally factor in the feasibility of being able to deliver on the decision.
But in a world filled with so much uncertainty, when it comes time to make a decision, how can you ever feel certain that you’re making a good one? The best decision-makers I know get to that point through a basic process of gathering, discussing, and analyzing relevant information until their gut and the facts are aligned on an actionable path forward. To help you get there with your next important decision, consider the following four steps.
Step 1: Foster Collaborative Debate
Start by creating a collaborative environment that can help sharpen your focus on potential courses of action through constructive debate. Before drawing others into the discussion, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this a decision I need to make now?
- Can I clearly describe the decision I need to make and frame the issues surrounding it?
- What’s the strategic context?
- Who are the people I need to get in the room with the right experience, expertise, and cultural and cognitive diversity necessary to discuss and debate the issues from all relevant angles?
Then, discuss and debate the issues surrounding your decision to develop and analyze feasible options, while keeping in mind the following key principles:
- Research shows that the top predictor of a quality decision is the quality of the discussions and debate preceding the decision, and quality debate is dependent on a psychologically safe environment where people feel comfortable sharing their honest opinions.
- Once feasible options are identified, it’s critical to objectively weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each. This often requires intentional effort to decouple each option from the person who thought of it, in order to ensure objective analysis.
- “Paralysis through analysis” is a common pitfall for many decision-makers. To avoid this, constantly ask yourself, “Do I feel enough conviction to be decisive and explain why I feel that way? In other words, do I trust my instinct?”
Step 2: Trust Your Instinct
Clarity and conviction around “why” you feel like a decision is a good one is the essence of trusting your instinct. In his New York Times best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize–winning author Daniel Kahneman describes how our intuition (the “fast thinking” part of our brain) can sometimes be more accurate than the logical and deliberate “slow thinking” part of our brain when it comes to judgment and decision-making. Many times this is a result of experience. Other times it’s that our unconscious mind can recognize patterns more quickly and accurately than through conscious calculations and reasoning. Kahneman’s main point is that these two parts or “systems” of our thinking, instinct and logic, work together to help us make decisions, and we should not underestimate the power of our “gut.”
Step 3: Verify the Logic
During his nuclear disarmament discussions with the Soviet Union leading up to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, Ronald Reagan often used the phrase, “Trust, but verify.” I believe this is an essential component of effective decision-making. Since our minds use both instinct and logic to make decisions, trust your instinct but verify it with logic. In other words, ensure that the relevant facts and assumptions are aligned with your gut instinct to confirm that your emotions aren’t creating misplaced bias.
Step 4: Be Courageously Decisive
Now, set your doubts aside and make the decision. No decision is perfect, but a good decision today is better than a perfect decision when it’s too late. Thank everyone involved for their valuable inputs, and explain your decision – including why you landed there. Not everyone will agree, but if you show genuine appreciation for their diverse perspectives and they feel like their voice is valued, they’ll be encouraged to continue sharing their opinions in the future. Then document your key assumptions and the decision you made, and stick with it. Don’t revisit the decision unless one or more of the assumptions change. Waffling on your decisions will cause your team to lose trust and confidence in you as a leader. On the other hand, being thoughtfully and courageously decisive will enhance their trust.
In summary, good decision-making boils down to good judgment. To avoid learning lessons the hard way through wrong decisions, hone your judgment by fostering collaborative debate, trusting your instinct, verifying the logic, and being courageously decisive.
To learn more about effective decision-making, check out The Substance of Leadership. Also, take the five-minute Performance Pressure Test for more insight into how well you’re performing as a leader.