Dominik Berner

C++ Coder, Agilist, Rock Climber

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Decide to decide better

Decide to decide better

How good are your decisions? - Every day we decide a lot of things small and big. At work or any professional setting we often have clear deciders. This can be a senior subject matter expert, the traditional “boss” or some collaborative process in an empowered team - it does not really matter. Contrary to our private live, in business we often have to make decisions more explicit and documented, for instance in the form of meeting minutes. Some people are good at deciding, others find it very hard.

Good decisions are valuable decisions

There are certain qualities which make decisions “good” in the sense that taking it added some value to an existing situation. This value is often not primarily defined by the outcome of the decision taken, but how important it was to take that decision at that moment. In general I see any decision which fails to trigger a distinct action in those involved is a worthless decision. Valuable decisions are explicit and well understood by the people involved and even if not everybody agrees there is at least consent to act on that decision for the time being. Bad decisions are fuzzy, heavily disputed and implemented grudgingly if at all by the people affected. There are even invisible decisions - those where people affected by it are not even aware that it has been taken. The consequences are again failure to implement the decision or even worse acting involuntarily against it.

Reflect on how you arrived at a decision

Often when things go wrong past decisions are put under scrutiny and are contested to find out how one arrived at the present situation. The reflex is often to put the content of the decision into the line of firing and ignore the circumstances that led to getting that decision made. However finding the context of how one arrived at that decision is at least equally if not more important. Doing so helps spotting where things went not as expected better and thus is of much more long term value to any actions to improve the situation as it can help avoiding making the same mistakes again next time. By reflecting about the decision process itself, my experience is that very often the finding is not that the decision per se was bad, but that expectations about its implementation differed between people involved.

Reflecting about your personal decision habits is a good way to start. From there a collective reflection about this can be started and this allows to find gaps of how different people perceive decisions made by others. This kind of reflection is quite simple, a good set of questions to ask yourself or inside a team is:

  1. Was a decision taken at all?
  2. Was it clear that a decision was taken (and who took it)?
  3. Did it trigger a distinct and timely action in those affected?

Only if these three questions can be answered with “yes” by all people involved this was a “valuable” decision in the sense that is was a good thing to take that decision. If any of the questions where answered with “no”, tackle to turn that into a yes in the future first. Only when the first two questions about the thought process behind the decisions are answered focusing on the content of the decision becomes relevant.

How people decide

People fall generally into two categories when it comes to decision-making-habits. There are the ones who decide early and watch the outcome and then adjust frequently and others who try to first find and analyze as many options as possible before deciding and decide as late as possible. People in the first category often feel uncomfortable and left hanging until a decision is taken, while people in the second category often experience doubt after taking a decision, often this doubt is about if the decision was taken prematurely. Both ways have their merits and drawbacks. The quick deciders often have to readjust or even revert decisions because they lacked part of the context surrounding the matter to be decided on. The careful analysts sometimes miss the opportunity for a decision and might be seen as not deciding at all. Both ways work well on their own. The problems happen when people from different spectrums have to work together and are unaware of where of the spectrum each of them is. This is of course not a black-and-white matter but depending on a lot of factors and people might behave differently in different contexts and different social settings.

To be good at making decisions being aware what kind of decision-making-process is happening is very helpful. Self-reflection about and what kind of decider you are is also a very good starting point. I often take a moment and think about how discussions that lead to decisions look like for me or my teams. How we arrived at certain decisions is frequent topic in many of my team-retrospectives. Making the process of thinking transparent to others is an essential part to decisions are accepted easily. Stating the tendency on how you make decisions explicitly often helps tremendously.

Apart from how you like to make your decisions, it is important to be clear on how you arrive to that decision. As stated above, some people like to put all possible options and thoughts into words and ask for advice before, some people like to refine these options first in private and then discuss only the synthesis of that. When one approach is confused with the other, misunderstandings are guaranteed to happen. If people are expecting only a synthesis of the context and a decision, but find themselves in a discussion about options, it is very likely that each of these options might be mistaken for a “final” decision and thus the decider might seem to jump from one decision onto another. On the other hand, if people are prepared to discuss options but receive only already made decisions, complains about the lack of consideration of different options are very likely.

Communicate your decision strategy

No matter what is your preferred way of decision-making, make your preferred strategy clear and transparent. Also make it clear if you are adapting or abandoning that strategy in favor of another. My personal bias is towards fast decisions that get readjusted frequently, and I often convey this to people by telling them about the more experimental nature of the decision I’m going to take. Sometimes I even put an expiry date on my decisions for when they should be checked against any newly emerged facts or be refined further. Saying things like “I’m going to collect feedback, synthesize and then decide” or “let’s discuss options first without deciding and then agree on a synthesis on which I will base my decision” help to outline intended decision-strategy to the people present. This aligns people to your thought-process and as a side-effect also offers the chance to challenge any part of the intended course of action.

By being aware and transparent in one’s decision process setting the context in which decisions were made becomes much easier. At the beginning this requires conscious effort but after a while this can become an automatic process. Having this automatic context-setting as an innate knowledge in the people deciding and those being affected by them will lead to better decisions, which in turn will allow to take decisions in a more lightweight manner.

Written on November 21, 2018