A Cup of Leadership CaffeineNote from Art: What started out as a cup of Leadership Espresso ended up as a Double-Tall! Enjoy the extra sips and let’s hear your thoughts on this important topic.

If you were to embark upon a rugged and lonely journey to the top of the mountain to ask for enlightenment from the Oracle of Management, I suspect that you would be left with the words “decision-making” to ponder on your long walk back to civilization.

And while that might not sound much like enlightenment, remember that oracles by their nature offer only vague but profound observations to stimulate learning.

In spite of the lack of a concrete answer from this journey, I’ll throw in my two-cents worth that decision-making is in fact the essence of management. It’s also darned hard to do, difficult to teach and challenging to get right more often than not.

As humans, we make tens of thousands of decisions ranging from the mundane to the profound.  Decisions open up new paths, close off old ones and usher in an entirely new series of issues and decisions that ultimately affect us in so many ways that it is hard to fathom.

History of course can be explained in hindsight as a series of critical decisions that ultimately determined the fate of civilizations, empires, nations and tribes.

Think about your own professional experience.  If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in the workplace, you can certainly look in the rear-view mirror and see decision-points that impacted the fate of teams, companies, or tasks. Projects hinge on decision-making effectiveness, as do new product launches and business strategies.

I recall distinctly watching and listening as a newly hired and early career professional as a firm’s market leading position was sacrificed on the alter of ego and ignorance with a single utterance from an executive. Most of us in the room suspected that the decision was bad at the time, but the true impact wasn’t clearly understood for several years.

Alternatively, I’ve participated in long and tough discussions and decision-making processes with teams that ultimately translated into good and great outcomes on both small and large scales.  From projects that succeeded to produce great results to products and strategies that captured market segments and grew revenues and profits.  In hindsight, the decisions seem so clear and obvious, but in real-time, they were tense, ambiguous and even frightening.

Talent related decisions are some of the most common and painful. Anyone that has hired a significant number of people has made one or more mistakes.  What was it about your own decision-making process that failed you or that obfuscated your ability to assess the individual properly?  It’s hard to say, but chances are you’ve learned from that mistake and refined your process.

While machines can be taught to make decisions based on rules and data, humans have the advantage and disadvantage of….well…of being human. There are many complex factors at play in our decision-making processes, ranging from our own personalities (think right or left brain), our personal experience sets and biases, to the many complicated environmental factors and human and group dynamics and risk and reward issues that make effective decision-making a truly complex task.

On the other-hand, we’re paid to make decisions and we’re responsible for helping our groups and teams do this effectively more often than not. What’s a leader to do?

The Bad News-There Are No Decision-Making Silver Bullets

A review of much of the management literature on decision-making showcases a great deal of fascinating discussion without a lot of substantive guidance. There is apparently no silver-bullet for us as managers and leaders on ensuring that we make good decisions or on ensuring that we build teams and cultures that make more good decisions than they do bad calls.

As I look back on my own career (yep, there’s that experience bias) as well as my observations of many, many teams and leaders, I’ve formed an informal and I’m sure imperfect, but hopefully, helpful list of tools to guide managers on strengthening their decision-making effectiveness and that of their teams.  These include:

11 Suggestions for Strengthening Your Own and Your Team’s Decision Making Effectiveness:

1. People need context to make decisions. The best context in a firm starts with a galvanizing vision and is strengthened with a clear strategy and highly interconnected goals. If you’ve worked in firms with and without this clarity, you’ve lived and know the difference.  The absence of vision, strategy and clear, meaningful goals equates to complete lack of context for any decisions.  They are all good and bad and there is no way to discriminate. Fix this!

2. If your organization fails on point number one, you need to fix this at the team or group level. Quit complaining about the lack of guidance and define the playing field and goals for your team.  Yes, this puts accountability on you and requires you to turn ambiguity into something concrete.  Get over it and get on with it.

3. Your own decision-making style infects-positively or negatively, everyone around you.  Ponder too long and you paralyze.  React too quickly and you increase risk and the likelihood of team whiplash by finding that you have to quickly reverse decisions.  You must deliberately develop a style that balances the need for clarity with the reality that much of business is steeped in ambiguity.

4. Beware of the evil paternal twins of groupthink and group polarization. Know your enemies and keep them visible and teach your team how to keep them at bay.

5. Create diversity where there is none. Beware the damage from having hired and cultivated too many like-minded professionals on your team.  They may be great, but in group dynamics, the lack of diversity of thinking styles is your enemy.  Draw in external help to challenge thinking.

6. Keep the Devil’s Advocate in a cage and let him out for periods of time. Tom Kelley of IDEO fame showcases the potential destruction of the Devil’s Advocate run amuck.  No one said this creature needs to live amongst you every day, but opening the cage door from time to time is both terrifying and helpful.

7. Use approaches other than discussion or face-to-face to make decisions to reduce biases and change dynamics.  The Nominal Group technique or the Delphi Method both offer opportunities to reduce the presence and impact of group biases.

8. Constantly teach your group to both assess their decisions and improve their decision-making processes.  This is a never-ending task of the effective leader.

9. Resist your own natural tendency to opine. John Chambers at Cisco (Harvard Video) described as one of the most critical issues in transforming from a command and control culture to one of collaboration, his need to not tell the answer to everyone after ten minutes of discussion.

10. Reward, don’t shoot messengers and failed experimenters. Remember Deming’s point number 8: “Eliminate fear in the workplace.”  Live it.

11. Create and teach a risk framework.  What’s the worst that will happen?  Can we bear the worst? If we cannot bear the worst, what can we change to reduce the worst?  While many will argue appropriately that a good risk framework is much more involved, you can do worse than start with these three questions.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Ultimately, your career and your company hinges on the decisions that you and others around you make.  Given the broader forces affecting us all…speed, globalization, the march of technology and an exciting spread of diversity in our workplaces, this process of making decisions won’t get any easier.  I don’t have the silver bullet for you either, other than to offer that you need to wake up every morning and walk in the door prepared to find a way to improve as decision-maker while teaching others to do the same.

Now, what are you going to do about it?