Note from Art: Your decisions define you as a leader and a manager, yet we spend very little time in our busy lives finding ways to improve our abilities in this area. This Management Excellence Toolkit Series will help you recognize the challenges and pitfalls of individual and group decision-making and offer ideas on improving performance for you and your co-workers.


“Every decision is a risk-taking judgment.” –Peter Drucker

“Making decisions is the most important job of any executive. It’s also the toughest and the riskiest.” –Hammond, Keeney and Raifa in HBR, The Hidden Traps in Decision Making.

How many decisions do you make in a typical week? If you’re like most managers, the answer is: “a bunch.”

Many of our decisions are fairly straightforward. We have policies, procedures and precedent, and the decisions are effectively programmed. No sweat, limited risk and in fact, it’s easy to train others to make these decisions.  It’s when we move outside of the programmed decisions that things get interesting.

The Sticky Decisions that Define Our Careers:

Consider the issue of choosing between multiple candidates for a job or, choosing which projects to invest in and which to place on the shelf.

Compared to the programmed decisions, the way forward for these key decisions is clouded by all sorts of factors: political and business risks, fuzzy information, evaluation errors, biases, opinions, agendas and good old-fashioned ambiguity.

To make matters worse, the effectiveness of the decision is often not visible for some time and even that may prove hard to measure based on the effectiveness of the actions taken to implement the decision.

You Must Develop as an Effective Decision Maker to Climb the Ladder:

As you climb the ladder, the decisions become more ambiguous, more complex and a whole heck of a lot riskier. Of course, you won’t reach the next rung on the ladder unless those who must decide to trust you, develop confidence in your ability to navigate those issues.

Given both the import of decision making on your career, your firm and even your life, it’s important to build decision-making muscle by scrutinizing your processes, your practices and your outcomes. A great place to start is to follow in the footsteps of Da Vinci, Franklin, Jefferson and Drucker (just to name a few) and start a Decision Journal.

Start the Process of Improving Your Decision Making Muscle by Creating a Decision Journal:

First, I’ll tackle the “this is corny” issue. Get over it. Our memories are ridiculously imperfect (a decision making trap!) and it’s critical to capture some key points at the time you make the decision, to be able to effectively scrutinize the effectiveness of the decision some time in the future. Oh, and the list of Hall of Fame Decision Journal Keepers above isn’t too shabby.

Note: this is useful for teams as well, and in project management circles, the use of a decision-log is a good practice.

At Least 12 Items to Capture in Your Decision Journal:

1. Decisions that are more strategic in nature, including hiring, promotions, project choices, investments, competitive moves and anything beyond the programmed level described above.

2. A clear statement of the issue and circumstances surrounding the issue.  A common mistake for individuals and teams occurs in how the issue is framed, and we will want to revisit the statement and circumstances down the road when outcomes become clear.

3. The perceived risks you assessed as part of the decision making process.

4. The information you referenced to support the process.

5. The individuals (and your relationship to them) you called upon for input.

6. The individuals involved in directly making the decision and their opinions.

7. Emotional factors and other pressures (e.g. time) swirling around the issue.

8. The decision choices and how you evaluated them, including your assumptions.

9. A description of the planned process for moving from decision to implementation.

10 The expected outcome of the decision.  What will determine success or failure?

11. How you will monitor the results of the decision.

12. When you expect to reasonably be able to assess the outcome.

And don’t forget to leave a big space for results.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This might seem like hard work. Well, it is, and there’s some time involved in both recording the information above and importantly, looping back to describe outcomes and assess what you did right or wrong. However, if making good decisions is as important as I described it above (and it is!), how can you afford to not take the time?

How you record or capture is less important than the act of doing it, as long as the information is organized and accessible. We live in a world filled with productivity apps. From my favorite…a Moleskin notebook to various digital tools, including creating a document template to using voice recordings to tools like Evernote, there’s little excuse other than laziness for not doing this.

Next Up in this Weekly Series: We’ll begin our exploration of common decision making pitfalls and traps and how to minimize or avoid them. Your assignment in the interim is to start your Decision Journal.

About Art Petty: Art coaches high potential professionals and develops and delivers  workshops and programs on leadership, professional development and building high performance teams. Contact Art to discuss your needs for a program or keynote.

And whether you are an experienced leader seeking to revitalize and develop as a professional, or, a new leader looking for guidance on starting up successfully, check out Art’s book with Rich Petro, Practical Lessons in Leadership at