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In the realm of organizational policy-making, high-stakes decisions are often characterized by high uncertainty. These decisions can have far-reaching implications, and their outcomes can significantly impact the organization’s success. Research indicates that the quality of the discussion and debate preceding such decisions is most often the best predictor of a quality decision. (1)
But how can advisors facilitate quality discourse to aid and advise policy makers? How do we navigate the treacherous waters of decision-making under uncertainty?
Understand the Decision-Maker
First, it’s crucial to understand three common attributes of high-level decision-makers:
- Experience: Decision-makers are often influenced by their past experiences, which can introduce personal and historical biases. Understanding these biases can help in tailoring how the advice is provided.
- Risk Tolerance: They constantly weigh risk against gain. Understanding their risk tolerance can influence the options presented to them.
- Time: Decision-makers are extremely busy, juggling multiple issues simultaneously. Their time is precious, and any advice given must be concise, pertinent, and timely.
Clarify the Problem
Next, ensure clarity and alignment on the problem that needs to be solved. Clear definition of the problem is the cornerstone of any decision-making process. Misunderstanding or misinterpreting the problem can lead to misguided solutions.
Use a Three-Pronged Approach to Decision Support
Once we understand the decision-maker and the problem, we can utilize a three-pronged approach to support decision-making:
1. Expand the Solution Space
This involves developing a range of options through collaborative brainstorming and clustering of ideas. It’s important to decouple the options from those who conceived them to remove confirmation bias.
Simultaneously, bound the uncertainty with risk-centric analytics. Consider both risks and opportunities, qualitatively assessing each option in terms of its probability and impact. Use statistical forecasting grounded in high-credibility datasets to quantify the uncertainty.
2. Analyze Selected Courses of Action
Select the most harmful, favorable, and likely options from the range of options developed. Analyze each course of action, considering key assumptions, similar historical scenarios, pros and cons, resources required, key risks/opportunities, and risk mitigation / opportunity capitalization plans.
3. Present and Discuss Courses of Action
Present and discuss the analyzed courses of action with the decision-maker and their staff using a top-down executive communication approach. The most common mistake is communicating bottom-up, overloading the decision-maker with details when what they need is a clear, concise summary.
Leading with the bottom line up front (BLUF), including the problem context and your recommended course of action in a one-page executive summary can be effective. This should be followed by a more detailed analysis, leaving ample time for questions, discussion, and debate.
Advising policy makers on high-stakes, high-uncertainty decisions requires an understanding of the decision-maker, clarity on the problem, and a systematic approach to developing and presenting solutions. By following this approach, advisors can significantly enhance the quality of discussion and debate preceding the decision, thereby increasing the likelihood of a quality decision that produces optimal outcomes.